By DAN KARELL
The U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team accomplished their goal of qualifying for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup later this year, but they did it in somewhat underwhelming fashion.
Endowed with a squad chock full of professionals, the U.S. stumbled out of the gate at the CONCACAF Under-20 Championships in Jamaica, drawing Guatemala and falling to Panama. Tab Ramos’ side recovered in the final four matches, shutting out the rest of their opponents and earning their place in New Zealand, but the damage from the first two matches knocked down some of the lofty expectations on the team and added a few more helpings of pressure.
The result was that the team learned a tried and true lesson the hard way, that any game in CONCACAF is a difficult one, despite what the outlook seems on paper.
“I would say the players learned a lot, and the coaching staff as well,” Ramos told SBI in a phone interview. “I’ll tell you there (in Jamaica), no matter how much preparation you have…no matter who you play in friendly games leading up to that competition, it doesn’t matter the quality of the opponent that you face.
“When you get to the CONCACAF qualifiers, there’s nothing like it. Every game is a final.”
One of the biggest lessons the team learned early on is that a one-goal lead in a CONCACAF cup competition is almost never enough to put away an opponent.
Outside of the Aruba rout and the final match against El Salvador, the U.S. failed to finish enough of their chances to ease the pressure that had been slowly building up over the course of the tournament. Ramos even said it was a sigh of relief when Paul Arriola’s 68th minute goal snaked its way across the goal line to give the U.S. some breathing room.
“I think one of the things that’s very important to us is recognizing the importance of putting teams away early, to push the teams more to create a little more distance,” Ramos said.
Ramos said overall that he was happy with the U.S. team’s performance in qualifying for the World Cup, which he doesn’t take for granted.
But at the same time, Ramos did admit that the team’s finishing was sub-par. The U.S. led the tournament with an incredible 92 shots on goal – 14 of them came in the Aruba match – but only scored 14 goals, a strike rate of just 15 percent.
Contrast that to Mexico, who scored 19 goals in 76 shots – 25 percent – and you can see where the U.S. has to improve before arriving in New Zealand.
“We created a lot of opportunities but unfortunately we couldn’t put the ball away,” Ramos said, adding that some of the blame was on the choppy field conditions in Jamaica. “We were not good enough in front of the goal. I thought for creating 92 shots on goal, we should have scored anywhere between 20-25 goals in the tournament, and we only scored 14. We were poor in front of the goal and we’ve got to get better at that.”
The U.S. U-20s coach was also overall happy with the way his team was managed. Ramos said he was proud of the fact that the entire 20-man roster played at least one half during the tournament, and added that he was okay with starting the same lineup for the final three games in a row, although he and the coaching staff thought about possibly changing the starting XI for the last game.
“Maybe we could have used a change,” Ramos said of the team heading into the El Salvador match. “Maybe we could have shaken the lineup a little bit instead of keeping it the same. (But) we didn’t want to do that because our subs, in particular Paul Arriola and Junior Flores, were doing so well coming off the bench. They’re certainly players who deserve to start, but I think that things were working well the way they were, so why change them?”
Now that the U.S. have qualified for the World Cup, one of the biggest questions looming over the team is whether Arsenal youngster and recent naturalized American Gedion Zelalem will be added to the team. The 18-year-old is age-eligible for the U-20 World Cup this summer, and if he and U.S. Soccer can receive an exemption from FIFA for him, he’d be able to put on a U.S. jersey as soon as this spring.
Even if Zelalem does become eligible to play for the U.S. this year, a decision has not been made as to whether he’d play with the U.S. U-20s or be fast-tracked straight to the U.S. Men’s National Team.
“That’s yet to be decided,” Ramos said of Zelalem’s international future. “I have to have a conversation with Jurgen (Klinsmann) about what our priorities are going to be this summer.
“Everything we do is for the senior national team. Once we decide priorities for the summer in terms of the Gold Cup and all the other competitions, then we can backtrack from there. We’ll have those conversations sometime around the Panama game (on February 8).”
Ramos also hinted that Zelalem might not be the only player who could be unavailable to play for the U.S. this summer at the U-20 World Cup.
“We have that scenario really not just with Gedion in how he gets incorporated into our programs but also the same scenario with Rubio Rubin, Emerson Hyndman, and possibly Zack Steffen,” Ramos explained. “We have some good players in this group that could potentially just not be with (the U-20s). Whether that means for the (U-20) World Cup or something else, that’s yet to be decided.”
Looking forward, Ramos has just begun to plan out the schedule for the U.S. U-20s ahead of the World Cup. Although he couldn’t reveal a location, Ramos did confirm that talks are underway to bring the team together either in the USA or abroad during the March FIFA dates, which are from March 23-31, and possibly having a week-long training camp in April.
And after the U-20 World Cup draw on Feb. 10, Ramos believes he’ll have a better idea of when to schedule preparation games and the final training camp before the team departs for New Zealand. The U-20 World Cup takes place from May 30-June 20.
“There’s a lot to be decided in the next few weeks,” Ramos said.