Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
There is something about youth that makes you fearless and far less concerned with things like failure and difficulty. How else could you explain the reaction of some U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team players when the Under-20 World Cup draw handed them the mother of all Groups of Death?
There was an excitement among U.S. players about the prospects of being in the toughest group in the Under-20 World Cup, which they kick off today against Spain, and the reality is that is how they should feel.
Standing before the U.S. is an opportunity to impress on an international stage, in front of scouts from around the world, and as much as results matter in any tournament, the Under-20 World Cup is just as much about showing off skill and playing quality soccer than it is about wins and losses.
“I don’t know, to be honest,” Ramos said when asked what expectations should be for this U.S. Under-20 team. “I like the players that we have. I like the talent that we have on our team. Obviously we play Spain in the first game. Spain happens to be the favorite to win the World Cup.
“At the same time, I see that as a great challenge for us that maybe tells us whether we’re close or really far away. At this point I don’t know the answers to that. I do know that if we can somehow survive in our group and get through to the next stage, I think that coming out of this group, we would probably be able to beat anybody.”
The U.S. Under-20s have their flaws, but there is also an exciting an intriguing quality to the group Tab Ramos has taken with him to Turkey. The team is built has been built with more of an emphasis on technical quality than physical attributes, and you can argue this is the first time a U.S. Under-20 team has played in a World Cup built in that way.
Ramos is charged with helping lead not just a new generation of American talent, but also implementing the new philosophies U.S. Soccer is trying to emphasize, which is a more technical brand of soccer, and players with the skill to play attractive attacking soccer that can stack up with the world’s best.
We will find out just how close the U.S. is to making that transition in the coming week, as Spain, France and Ghana will present the Americans with a litmus test that will either tell us this new, more skilled generation of U.S. players is closing the gap on the rest of the world, or that we still have a long way to go.
This U.S. team has already shown what it can do, pushing Mexico to the brink in the CONCACAF Under-20 World Cup qualifying tournament final before falling in extra time. In that game, the U.S. showed real quality and fearlessness in taking it to a Mexican team playing in front of a home crowd.
The U.S. will need that same fearlessness against the likes of Spain and France, with pros like Jose Villarreal, Luis Gil, DeAndre Yedlin and Cody Cropper expected to lead the charge. The team will also need Tab Ramos to show that he is capable of coaching the team to a successful result.
Ramos will be facing more pressure than his players because while his players can hide behind the fact that they are young, Ramos will have no excuse if the team doesn’t play well and is woefully overmatched. It might seem a cruel circumstance given the uncertainty of young players, but that is nothing new for coaches and Ramos is ultimately responsible for selecting his team and putting together the game plan.
So what does the U.S. Under-20 team look like heading into the World Cup? Here is a primer for those unfamiliar.
Cody Cropper is the starter, and while he isn’t an established pro yet (he’s on the books at Southampton, but doesn’t have first-team experience), he is a highly-regarded prospect. Also, he isn’t likely to play, but third goalkeeper Zach Steffen is a future star and a name to remember.
The weak link on the team is the back-line, where there isn’t a natural centerback on the roster. Converted midfielders Caleb Stanko and Shane O’Neill will start, though regular right back Eric Miller will start in place of O’Neill (suspension) in the opener vs. Spain. Tab Ramos could wind up regretting his decision not to bring in FC Dallas centerback Walker Zimmerman, just the kind of imposing presence the U.S. roster lacks.
O’Neill’s emergence as a regular starting centerback for the Colorado Rapids has been key for a U-20 team that lost out on a pair of quality central defense prospects in John Anthony Brooks and Will Packwood. O’Neill was a midfielder until as recently as late last year, but his ability to play a good number of MLS matches at centerback should help him when he returns from suspension.
Fullback has some better options, with Seattle Sounders standout DeAndre Yedlin expected to feature at right back. Juan Pablo Ocegueda is the left back, and is likely to draw more attention from opposing attacks.
“We feel good about the fact that Yedlin has been added to the roster and he’s someone who has a lot of professional experience the last couple of months since the World Cup Qualifiers, which he was not involved in,” Ramos said. “We feel good about the level of play of Juan Pablo Ocegueda on the left side and obviously Caleb Stanko, as well as Shane O’Neill.
“I think we’re a little bit more experienced than we were a couple months ago, and the fact that we’ve been together for a couple weeks is really going to help us.”
The need to move Stanko to centerback hurt this group a bit, but there is still plenty of quality here, with Luis Gil the standout. His creativity and passing ability should help drive the U.S. attack, while Benji Joya is also a quality option in the midfield triangle the U-20s employ.
Columbus Crew midfielder Wil Trapp and Sporting KC rookie Mikey Lopez are the options in defensive midfield, and both have plenty to prove. Ramos could be forced to play both if teams like Spain and France prove too tough to handle in midfield.
Another player to watch is Daniel Garcia. The creative midfielder who recently signed with FC Dallas could wind up featuring heavily, especially if Gil has any continued issues with a concussion he suffered before the World Cup.
Plenty of firepower for the 4-3-3 attack, with Daniel Cuevas and Jose Villarreal serving as the dynamic wide threats in the forward trident. Cuevas is a speedster who should give opponents fits, while Villarreal is the magician who can float all over the field and create chances for himself and his teammates.
The center forward spot will feature either relative newcomer Alonso Hernandez or Mario Rodriguez. Both fit in well playing as target strikers in the 4-3-3 system, with Hernandez looking like a good bet to start after impressing Ramos in recent weeks.
“Alonso is not someone that we had been tracking for the last few months,” Ramos said of Hernandez. “He was someone that got onto our radar in April when he debuted in a Liga MX game between Monterrey and Santos. That’s the first time we’ve heard about him. Then we just followed him. For the next month I followed all his touches on the ball and was able to see every play he was involved in during the next four weeks. From there we decided to call him.
“We thought he did well enough to deserve a call. He plays for Monterrey, a great team with great players, and not only that but he plays for Coach (Victor Manuel) Vucetich, and because I played for him I know how demanding he is,” Ramos said. “I know in order for a young player to earn playing time for one of the best coaches the Mexican league has ever had, I think says a lot about the player. We called him in and I think he’s been nothing but a great find for us. He certainly fits in well with the team. He works hard and has been a great last-minute addition for us.”
The U.S. has the attacking talent to score against anybody, but there are serious questions marks about the defense, which could struggle mightily in this tournament. Villarreal, Hernandez, Gil and Cuevas should find success, but just how well they do could depend largely on whether the defense can hold firm, and central midfielders like Trapp, Joya and Lopez can hold their own and keep possession.
A best case scenario? Stanko and O’Neill play very well, the U.S. scores plenty of goals, and the Americans finish second in the group. A worst-case scenario? Stank0, O’Neill and Trapp struggle badly and the U.S. finish winless (and even goal-less) in group play.
Look for the U.S. to fall somewhere in between, with an offense that should impress, even if the team falls short of advancing out of the group stage. For the Americans to do any better, they will need their defense to grow up quickly.