The U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team’s World Cup opener was quite a ride. There were goals, six of them in fact. There were blunders, plenty of them. But in the end, there was also a point, one which could be vital as the group stage continues.
Tab Ramos is hoping for something a bit less up-and-down when the United States takes the field for their second group stage match, but the head coach is also prepared for another tough challenge against another difficult opponent.
Following Monday’s 3-3 draw with Ecuador, the U.S. returns to action on Thursday for a clash with group-leaders Senegal (7 a.m., Fox Sports 1). The African nation, who finished second in their form of World Cup qualifying, enters the day top of the group after topping Saudi Arabia to start World Cup play.
“They’re going to be a fast, athletic team,” winger Brooks Lennon said. “They have good front players. Their attacking players are dangerous. We need to be focused on defense and make sure we all do our jobs.
“It’s a huge game in the tournament,” he added. “It’s a must-win game for us to get the three points and, if we come out strong in the first 15 minutes, I think we can.”
Like Lennon says, the first 15 minutes will be crucial, especially considering what transpired in the opener. The U.S. conceded twice before the 10 minute mark and was forced into a massive comeback bookmarked by a 94th minute Luca de la Torre goal.
While de la Torre’s late finish sealed the point, it was the play of Josh Sargent that got the Americans back into it. The young forward fired two goals in his World Cup debut with the first coming on a well-placed through ball from de la Torre. The second came on a cross from Lennon as Sargent peeled off of his defender to head home from inside the box.
Lennon says that, as the game wore on, he found more chemistry with Sargent. He started to learn the forwards runs and began to acknowledge his ability to hold the ball. Sargent is a welcome presence, according to Lennon, because he provides both technique and physicality atop the field.
In the middle of the field, it was Derrick Jones who provided that physicality. The Philadelphia Union midfielder entered the match in the first half as a replacement for the injured Gedion Zelalem. Following news of the severity of Zelalem’s injury, Ramos says there’s a “good possibility” Jones moves into the starting lineup in his stead.
“He did very well in the first game,” Ramos said of Jones. “He got thrown into a very difficult position. It’s not easy to go into the center of the field in the middle of the game because of the speed of the game, but he helped us. Not only did he fit in, but he made us better. We’re happy with that.”
Jones and the U.S. certainly face another big challenge on Thursday. Senegal looked strong in a 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia in their group stage opener as they jumped to the top of the group standings. A result on Thursday would send them through, giving plenty of motivation to push for a win.
It’s a team looking to follow up on previous success. In their first U-20 World Cup appearance, Senegal advanced all the way to the semifinal round in the 2015 tournament before falling to Brazil, 5-0, in the final. Ramos says this team looks similar as they play counter-attacking soccer with speed. The current group plays through the little a bit more, Ramos says, but there’s still a need to be wary when the U.S. gives up possession.
A win on Thursday would also be a major lift to the Americans’ own push for the knockout round. The format is forgiving, allowing 16 of the 24 teams into the knockout stages. Senegal, however, won’t be forgiving, as Ramos and co. are prepared for another tough, physical game against a team that has the tools to win.
“The World Cup is difficult,” Ramos said. “You play against good players on every team. In particular, in the attacking third, there are always players who can put a game away and sometimes you give up chances and they go in the goal. We went down two goals (against Ecuador), but I’m very happy with how the team responded to that.”
“They’re a big strong team,” added captain Erik Palmer-Brown. “It’s the World Cup. You expect every team to be good when you come out here. We’re ready for a fast, physical game. We’re preparing for another tough opponent.”