By DAN KARELL
The U.S. Men’s Under-20 National Team passed through the gauntlet that is the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship, but their road to FIFA Under-20 World Cup glory will be much, much tougher.
In Group A, The U.S. will face Spain, France, and Ghana, all strong candidates to advance in the group stage. Elsewhere, one of the deepest tournaments in memory is missing two regulars, as Brazil and Argentina both shockingly failed to qualify. Brazil, the 2011 World Cup champion, are missing the tournament for the first time since 1979.
Greece, Cuba, and El Salvador all make their debut’s at the tournament hosted by Turkey, while Mexico brings a squad with a core of players who won the 2011 Under-17 World Cup on home soil.
Here’s a closer look at this summer’s Under-20 World Cup, which kicks off today:
GROUP A: United States, France, Spain, Ghana
Friday: France vs. Ghana (ESPN3) 11am
Friday: USA vs. Spain (ESPN2) 2pm
Monday: France vs. USA (ESPN2) 11am
Monday: Spain vs. Ghana (ESPNU) 2pm
June 27: Ghana vs. USA (ESPNU) 1pm
June 27: Spain vs. France (ESPN3) 1pm
Key Players to Watch: FRANCE: Kurt Zouma, Paul Pogba, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Florian Thauvin; GHANA: Frank Acheampong, Richmond Boakye, Ebenezer Assifuah, Daniel Pappoe; USA: Jose Villarreal, Benji Joya, Luis Gil, Shane O’Neill; SPAIN: Jese, Oliver Torres, Gerard Deulofeu, Paco Alcacer.
OUTLOOK: In what is arguably the toughest group in the tournament, at least one nation will be heart broken by not making it out of the group. Spain enter as two-time defending European Under-19 champions and have a squad that is loaded with talented players like Jese, Oliver, and Deulofeu, that are all wanted by teams abroad. France are no slouches either and Kondogbia and Pogba will be very difficult to break down in the middle of the park, while Zouma cleans up behind them. Yaya Sanogo will be difficult to slow down up top. Ghana lost on penalty kicks in the African Youth Championship, but have in the past brought strong sides to the youth World Cups, and this will be no different. The U.S. will have the tough task of playing without Shane O’Neill when they face Spain in the first match, but they’ll be hoping that a side filled with more professionals than ever before can carry them through.
GROUP B: Cuba, South Korea, Nigeria, Portugal
Friday: Cuba vs. South Korea (ESPN3) 11am
Friday: Nigeria vs. Portugal (ESPN3) 2pm
Monday: Cuba vs. Nigeria (ESPN3) 11am
Monday: Portugal vs. South Korea (ESPN3) 2pm
June 27: South Korea vs. Nigeria (ESPN3) 10am
June 27: Portugal vs. Cuba (ESPN3) 10am
Key Players to Watch: CUBA: Arichel Hernandez, Maykel Reyes, Hector Morales, Dairon Perez; SOUTH KOREA: Lee Gwang-Hoon, Kim Hyun, Kang Sang-Woo, Kwon Chang-Hoon; NIGERIA: Aminu Umar, Abdul Ajagun, Michael Olaitan, Edafe Egbedi; PORTUGAL: Bruma, Ricardo, Agostinho Ca, Tiago Ilori.
OUTLOOK: Portugal and Nigeria enter as the traditional favorites to make it out of the group, and for plenty of good reason. The core of the Nigeria side was in the final of the 2011 U-17 World Cup two years ago and forward Aminu Umar was top scorer at the CAF Youth Championship. Portugal meanwhile brings in a squad that, while lacking a ton of top flight experience, has plenty of players that could be set for a place in their club’s first-team depending on the results. Bruma, the Sporting winger is one to keep an eye on. Cuba, making their first ever appearance, and South Korea, should put up a good fight but it’s unknown whether they’ll have any surprises up their sleeves.
GROUP C: Turkey, El Salvador, Colombia, Australia
Saturday: Colombia vs. Australia (ESPN3) 11am
Saturday: Turkey vs. El Salvador (ESPNU) 2pm
Tuesday: Australia vs. El Salvador (ESPN3) 11am
Tuesday: Turkey vs. Colombia (ESPNU) 2pm
June 28: Australia vs. Turkey (ESPN3) 2pm
June 28: El Salvador vs. Colombia (ESPN3) 2pm
Key Players to Watch: TURKEY: Kerim Frei, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Salih Uçan, Okay Yokuşlu; EL SALVADOR: Jairo Henríquez, Maikon Orellana, Bernardo Majano, Marvin Baumgartner; COLOMBIA: Juan Fernando Quintero, Jhon Córdoba, Jherson Vergara, Cristian Higuita; AUSTRALIA: Jamie Maclaren, Adam Taggart, Ryan Williams, Corey Gameiro.
OUTLOOK: American viewers will remember when the U.S. U-20s played Colombia in the Toulon Tournament, and lost to the South American champions, who would go on to be runners-up in Toulon. Juan Fernando Quintero is one of the top young midfielders in the world, while Cristian Higuita looks to make his own name on the world’s stage, son of the famous goalkeeper Rene. The hosts haven’t played a competitive match in quite some time, but they’ll be rearing to go, while an Australian side with a number of players playing in England could surprise some. El Salvador, with some chemistry as nearly all of their players play on Turin-FESA, could pull off an upset if they defend well.
GROUP D: Mexico, Greece, Paraguay, Mali
Saturday: Mexico vs. Greece (ESPN) 11am
Saturday: Paraguay vs. Mali (ESPN3) 2pm
Tuesday: Mexico vs. Paraguay (ESPN2) 11am
Tuesday: Mali vs. Greece (ESPN3) 2pm
June 28: Mali vs. Mexico (ESPNU) 11am
June 28: Greece vs. Paraguay (ESPN3) 11am
Key Players to Watch: MEXICO: Jesus Corona, Arturo Gonzalez, Antonio Briseño, Guillermo Madrigal; GREECE: Dimitrios Diamantakos, Dimitrios Kolovos, Kostas Triantafyllopoulos, Mavroudis Bougaidis; PARAGUAY: Arnaldo Sanabria, Jorge Rojas, Gustavo Gómez, Derlis Gonzalez; MALI: Adama Niane, Souleymane Sissoko, Abdoulaye Keita, Tiecero Keita.
OUTLOOK: Greece were surprise finalists at last year’s European U-19 championships, but they’ve earned their way with plenty of goalscoring from Diamantakos, who is one to watch. Mexico have carry over players from their U-17 World Cup title squad and with Jose “Tecatito” Corona they’re set to make a deep run in the tournament. Though their senior side is floundering, the Paraguay U-20 squad has some nice players, including Jorge Rojas and Arnaldo Sanabria, the latter playing at La Masia in Barcelona. Finally, Mali could surprise a few, as this past spring they finished fourth in the CAF Youth championship, with Adama Niani leading the side in scoring.
GROUP E: Chile, Egypt, England, Iraq
Sunday: Chile vs. Egypt (ESPN3) 11am
Sunday: England vs. Iraq (ESPNU) 2pm
Wednesday: Chile vs. England (ESPN3) 11am
Wednesday: Iraq vs. Egypt (ESPN3) 2pm
June 29: Iraq vs. Chile (ESPN3) 2pm
June 29: Egypt vs. England (ESPNU) 2pm
Key Players to Watch: CHILE: Cristian Cuevas, Angelo Henriquez, Diego Rojas, Igor Lichnovsky; EGYPT: Saleh Gomaa, Mahmoud Kahraba, Ahmed Hassan Koka, Ramy Rabia; ENGLAND: Harry Kane, James Ward-Prowse, Conor Coady, Eric Dier; IRAQ: Mohannad Abdul-Raheem, Dhurgham Ismail, Humam Tariq, Saif Salman.
OUTLOOK: Chile play a fun attacking brand of soccer that will surely be on display with the midfield talents of Rojas, Cuevas, and Rabello feeding Henriquez up top. Egypt and Iraq both called up a squad full of youngsters who have played plenty of games for the senior national team, while the England side, though containing some highly regarded prospects like Ward-Prowse and Kane are missing the likes of Conor Wickham and Jack Butland, as well as five others who were with England at the UEFA Under-21 Championships this summer. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would also have been eligible to play for the Three Lions this summer.
GROUP F: New Zealand, Uzbekistan, Uruguay, Croatia
Sunday: New Zealand vs. Uzbekistan (ESPN3) 11am
Sunday: Uruguay vs. Croatia (ESPN3) 2pm
Wednesday: New Zealand vs. Uruguay (ESPN3) 11am
Wednesday: Croatia vs. Uzbekistan (ESPN3) 2pm
June 29: Uzbekistan vs. Uruguay (ESPN3) 11am
June 29: Croatia vs. New Zealand (ESPN3) 11am
Key Players to Watch: NEW ZEALAND: Tyler Boyd, Tim Payne, Louis Fenton, Cameron Howieson; UZBEKISTAN: Vladimir Kozak, Igor Sergeev, Jamshid Iskanderov, Tohirjon Shamshitdinov; URUGUAY: Diego Rolan, Nicolas Lopez, Diego Laxalt, Guillermo Varela. CROATIA: Marko Livaja, Marko Pjaca, Josip Radosevic, Niko Datkovic
OUTLOOK: Uruguay and Croatia will be expected to make it out of the group stage, but don’t count out New Zealand or Uzbekistan just yet. Uzbekistan, with a number of their players all coming from the same club, will have the kind of chemistry that Uruguay and Croatia dream of. New Zealand feature a number of players in England and at Wellington Phoenix in the A-League, while Croatia have selected a few overseas players in their squad too, particular players based in Italy.