By IVES GALARCEP
The best word to describe the U.S. Under-20 National Team’s performance against Haiti on Monday is disjointed. The team did win the match, but did so in about as uninspiring a way as possible. There was no flow to their game, no midfield control, no build-ups and none of the technical quality we would have hoped for from this group of players.
The 4-3-3 formation Tab Ramos trotted out played more like a 4-1-5, leaving Will Trapp to fend for himself as waves of speedy Haitians went at a U.S. defense that was never going to be able to handle Haiti’s athleticism without better defensive contributions from the front five.
There was plenty of hand-wringing over the defensive selections. Yes, Javan Torre and Boyd Okwuonu are centerbacks for their college teams, and yes, Caleb Stanko and Shane O’Neill are more naturally midfielders than centerbacks, but the issues the defense had were far more related to the players playing in front of the back four than it did with the back four having players out of position.
Ultimately, what you saw was a group of players that looked, collectively, very uncomfortable in the system the team was playing in. The reality is that shouldn’t come as a big surprise.
The 4-3-3 wasn’t completely new to the U.S. Under-20s. They have been training with it for some time now, and have played in that system in warm-up matches, but there is a difference between being familiar with a system and being truly well-versed in a system.
For Will Trapp, playing at Akron University prepared him for the 4-3-3, but having five attackers in front of him who did a poor job of spacing and moving as a unit wasn’t something he was very familiar with, which is part of the reason he was left looking like a chicken with his head cut off as he raced around trying to cover the gaps left by his teammates.
The rest of the front six just didn’t move as a unit, and often times wound up in taking up the same spaces on the field, leaving wide swaths of grass for Haiti’s speedsters to race into, which oftentimes led to U.S. fullbacks being isolated against Haiti’s fastest players.
That doesn’t completely absolve Javan Torre and Boyd Okwuono. Both, particularly Okwuonu, could have fared better defensively, but the notion that since they play centerback on the college level they couldn’t handle playing fullbacks is a stretch. Torre is quick and athletic and could have handled left back with some more support from midfield. With Daniel Cuevas pressing so far forward, Torre was left with far too much space to cover far too many times.
As for Okwuonu, he is one of the better centerbacks in the college game, but the chances are he won’t be a centerback on the pro level. He’s an athletic 5-foo-8 defender who more likely projects as a pro right back than centerback, even if he may have looked completely overmatched at right back on Tuesday.
Ultimately, Torre and Okwuonu were left with far too little defensive support, and even natural fullbacks would have struggled under those circumstances.
What Tab Ramos needs to do is figure out a lineup that gets him the defensive quality he needs from a full 11, rather than just a back four and Trapp. That means likely breaking up the all-Latino American front five he constructed. It had the makings of a super skilled bunch, with Luis Gil’s playmaking, and Cuevas’ speed and Jose Villarreal’s attacking qualities. But the reality is it was probably ambitious to think you could play a lineup with those three and Mario Rodriguez and Benji Joya and have the proper balance necessary to defend capably.
Starting Mikey Lopez is certainly an option, and partnering him with Trapp in a 4-3-3 wih Luis Gil above them as the tip of the diamond is probably the way to go. Regardless what some may think, Lopez is more box-to-box midfielder than playmaker. He has defensive qualities that could make him the perfect partner for Trapp. Ramos may also have to consider sitting Villarreal, who just didn’t look like he had a real grasp of all the responsibilities that come with playing as a wide forward in a 4-3-3.
Sitting Joya and Villarreal for two players with better defensive qualities could help give the team better balance, and potentially allow the team to do a better job of keeping possession and controlling tempo. The lineup on Tuesday only new one gear and that frantic pace left the U.S. defense exposed far too often on the counter.
It is unclear just what Costa Rica will bring to the table when they face the Americans on Friday, but Haiti showed us (and Costa Rica) that the U.S. lineup we saw on Monday was a vulnerable one with plenty of weak points to exploit. Ramos needs to make some changes, but it shouldn’t be assumed that those changes will begin with the shaking up the back four.