At the end of the day, the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team simply came up against a better team. There are few ways to spin it. Venezuela is and was, by all measures, the superior team for 90 minutes and beyond in Sunday’s quarterfinal clash.
Sometimes, you just run into better teams. It happens, but all you can do in those scenarios is give yourself a chance to win. The U.S. did just that but, in the end, they came up short.
It was a World Cup push with plenty of highs and lows. It was a tournament that started with a scare and two rapid-fire goals to Ecuador. It was a tournament that saw a 6-0 pounding of New Zealand and a narrow 1-0 defeat of Senegal. There were several bad moments and plenty of good ones as the U.S. put together yet another strong tournament run.
With that in mind, here’s a look at several of the big takeaways from the Americans’ performance at the U-2o World Cup:
SARGENT BOOSTS REPUTATION IN A BIG WAY
Heading into the World Cup, Josh Sargent’s inclusion was the biggest surprise. Sure, he was coming off a strong campaign in Under-17 World Cup qualifying, and, yes, the team did need help at forward, but was Sargent ready for this level?
The answer was an overwhelming yes. Sargent was more than sufficient; at times, he was dominant. Playing against opposition several years older, Sargent proved an absolute force for an American attack that genuinely needed it. From goals to hold-up play to clever runs to open up space, Sargent brought it all while playing well above his label as a mere 17 year old.
He was kept quiet in the quarterfinal, but that shouldn’t diminish what was a strong tournament. At the time of the Americans’ exit, Sargent is tied for the Golden Boot with four goals in five matches.
The question is, obviously, what’s next? Sargent had already been a major target of clubs overseas and had reportedly signed a deal with Werder Bremen. When, and if, that becomes official, we’ll know a bit more but, for now, it’s quite clear that Sargent has rapidly climbed the list of most promising American prospects.
DEPTH IN DEFENSE BODES WELL
Centerback depth was certainly a key theme for the U.S. throughout both qualifying and the World Cup and, after a strong performance, those centerbacks now look poised to compete with one another on a bigger stage for years to come.
Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown, Justen Glad and Tommy Redding all showed fairly well throughout the tournament as each was given time to shine throughout the five games. Tab Ramos knew he had depth at the centerback position and, through a variety of factors, that depth came into play as the U.S. allowed just five goals in as many games.
Looking forward, there’s little doubt that Carter-Vickers is the brightest prospect of the bunch. The Tottenham centerback is one of the most prized prospects in the U.S. pool and looks to be set for more first team minutes on the club level next season. Palmer-Brown also did himself plenty of favors, even if his miss in the quarterfinal loss will overshadow what was a strong captain’s performance throughout the tournament.
As for Glad and Redding, both have a chance to prove themselves further in a strong club situation. The two should return to their clubs and earn solid minutes, minutes which will be vital for Glad due to his early-season injury.
The pool, in many ways, is deep when it comes to young centerbacks. Matt Miazga is just 21. Walker Zimmerman is 24. Even John Brooks is only 24. However, this current crop of U-20s certainly made their case in what is certainly a position with plenty of promise for 2018 and beyond.
ADAMS DEVELOPING INTO STAR MIDFIELDER
Aside from Sargent, the team’s big winner might have been Tyler Adams. Throughout the tournament, the New York Red Bulls midfielder was an absolute bulldog in midfield as he helped anchor a central unit that had very little depth.
Following the injury to Gedion Zelalem, the U.S. was without a No. 10, forcing several tactical switches. With Derrick Jones inserted into the lineup, Adams and Eryk Williamson were given room to roam. While Jones and Williamson both had strong moments throughout, it was Adams that was the standout player.
After breaking onto the scene with a stunning goal against Chelsea two years ago, Adams’ steady ascent has been well documented. He did well on the USL level before making the step up to MLS while showing the attitude and ability to play in that central midfield role. It carried over to the World Cup where his workrate was vital for the U.S. throughout.
The Red Bulls have made a habit of developing talented young Americans, players like Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Matt Miazga. Adams may very well be the next on that list after yet another strong international showing.
STILL SOME CATCHING UP TO DO
There’s no shame in a quarterfinal defeat, and there’s no need to over-criticize a youth competition. Youth trophies and senior success rarely correlate, even if it’s easy to say it’s better to win competition’s than lose them.
What matters most, more than trophies or deep runs, is progress. The U.S. U-20s showed that progress throughout their five-game run, but there’s still much, much more to be done on the youth level.
Following the defeat to Venezuela, Ramos said that this group was the first American team to truly believe it could win the World Cup. It’s hard to argue with that, all things considered, as the U.S. did look like a team capable of making that run. A header away from beating Venezuela, the U.S. very much had a chance to advance and maybe, just maybe, make a real at it.
This group had better players than those that came before, players more developed and refined than in years past. It’s a credit to the changes and improvements in the development system and a bigger focus on youth developed by MLS clubs. American prospects are simply better than they were a decade ago, and it shows.
Now, were there deficiencies? Sure. The style of play still isn’t quite where it needs to be. Without Gedion Zelalem, the U.S. lacked that true passing central midfield, even if Derrick Jones and Tyler Adams were beasts in box-to-box roles. Much like the senior team, fullback remains a weakness while set piece defense remains an adventure.
But, you can see the building blocks. In two straight cycles, the U.S. has shown progress and demonstrated that the moves made in youth development are starting to bear fruit. The country as a whole is getting better at identifying and molding young talents, and this U-20 group showed that, while there’s work to be done, the program is on the right path.