By FRANCO PANIZO
It was not a dream performance by any stretch of the imagination, but it was enough to start the World Cup off on the right foot.
The U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team kickstarted its tournament run in New Zealand by picking up three points on Saturday, coming from behind to defeat World Cup newcomers Myanmar, 2-1, in a Group A opener that was as tight at the scoreline indicated.
While the U.S. got the job done and now sits in first place in Group A, its performance in the match at Northland Events Center in Whangarei left a lot to be desired. An early mistake by goalkeeper Zack Steffen allowed Myanmar to take a shock lead, and an overall sloppy and nervy first half from the Americans raised a few eyebrows.
U.S. head coach Tab Ramos made some adjustment shortly after halftime, and the Americans looked much improved. Emerson Hyndman also turned from facilitator to scorer, following up Maki Tall’s 14th-minute goal with one of his own in the 56th minute to ultimately decide the match.
Here is what SBI is thinking about following the U.S.’s 2-1 win vs. Myanmar:
ZELALEM SHOWS CLASS, LACK OF CHEMISTRY
Some were caught by surprise to see Ramos leave Gedion Zelalem on the bench at the start of the match, but the midfielder’s unfamiliarity with his American teammates and the fact that tougher opponents await in a quick few days always made it a real possibility.
Once Zelalem entered the match in the 55th minute, there were good and bad things on display. Zelalem had a composure and smoothness to his game that several of his compatriots lacked against the energetic Myanmar players, and he initially moved the ball well with quick passes.
He then looked lost for the next 15-20 minutes. Zelalem was constantly not on the same page with his teammates, which is understandable given his recent introduction into the U.S. setup. He hit a few stray passes to no one, and also was caught dribbling for far too long on one instance.
Zelalem has the tools to help the U.S. at this World Cup, but chemistry takes time to develop and he might not be able to really show how good he can be until later in the tournament.
DELGADO’S STRUGGLES KEY TO MYANMAR’S SUCCESS
While the U.S. as a whole was not up to snuff in the first half, a big problem for them was the play of Marco Delgado. Used in the No. 6 role in the diamond midfield, Delgado was unable to consistently stop Myanmar from penetrating the U.S.’s defensive third. He was also sloppy with his passing in both halves, hitting a few unforced turnovers that killed attacks before they could truly build up.
Delgado likely would not have been starting had the rangier Russell Canouse not suffered an injury last week that ruled him out for the tournament. Still, Delgado should have been able to perform better than he did against Myanmar. The U.S. desperately needed its defensive midfielder to slow down the buzzing Myanmar attackers and build up passing sequences, especially in the first half, but Delgado was overrun and not sharp enough far too often.
Ramos will have to reconsider who he deploys there for the upcoming game against New Zealand, but Kellyn Acosta – who served as the initial destroyer in World Cup qualifying – is really the only other natural option on the roster. Even so, it’s hard to see Delgado getting the nod again at the base of the diamond after his rough initial showing.
MIDFIELD SPACING WAS AN ISSUE
Another reason the Americans had a rough first half was that their spacing in the midfield was all wrong. The diamond midfield requires the front six to be more compact when in possession and to move the ball with quick combination play, but often the Americans were too far apart.
This resulted in forced, longer passes, and the results on those were mixed. It’s also why Myanmar was able to so effectively press high up the field. The Americans were constantly on the ball with no options nearby, and the pressure from Myanmar rushed the U.S.’s decision-making.
While there is some validity to the argument that the Americans did not look comfortable or on the same page for large stretches, things improved dramatically at the start of the second half. On one sequence just three minutes after the intermission, the U.S. played some neat one- to two-touch passing that carved open Myanmar’s defense and led to a good-looking chance that Rubio Rubin headed wide.
More of that type of build-up and play will be needed not only in the next game against New Zealand, but also throughout the tournament.
RUBIN, TALL IMPRESS UP TOP
Rubio Rubin and Maki Tall were not very involved in the first half, but a lot of that was due to the midfield’s inability to get them the ball. When they did have it at their feet, they made things happen.
Tall was the more active of the two forwards in the opening 45 minutes, causing problems for Myanmar defenders with his willingness to attack them on the dribble and ability to pick up fouls. He made the most of his limited touches, and also had the clutch acrobatic finish that allowed the U.S. to not have to dwell for too long on the fact that it was trailing. That was a vital but largely overlooked contribution for the Americans’ psyche given the pressure the U.S. is facing in this tournament.
Rubin took some time to get into the game, but also wound up making an impact after a largely invisible first half. He found himself on the ball more after the break, and showed creativity and quality by teeing up teammates with passes that marked some of the most dangerous scoring opportunities for the U.S.
Substitute forward Bradford Jamieson contributed to the U.S. cause with a key run off the ball that helped create space for Hyndman on the winner, but Ramos will likely want to stick with Rubin and Tall as the pairing up top against New Zealand. They both showed on Saturday that they can make a difference. They just need to see more of the ball to do so.
FULLBACKS FAIL TO DELIVER
Acosta got the surprise nod at left back in this one, and Shaquell Moore started on the opposite flank. Neither impressed.
Apart from failing to get into the attack with any regularity, both Acosta and Moore struggled defensively. Acosta’s troubles were especially glaring, as he was beaten too easily on the dribble on a couple of occasions. He has been used more in the midfield as of late with the U.S., but still is familiar with playing at fullback and should not have had as rough an outing as he did. His point-blank miss in front of an open goal was symbolic of his day.
Moore also had his hands full, but did a slightly better job in his one-on-one battles. Still, there were a few instances, including late in the second half, in which he was troubled by Myanmar’s aggressive attackers. That does not bode well for later on in the tournament when the level of the opposition is expected to raise.
Ramos has other options at the fullback spots, including Desevio Payne, and it might be worth seeing how they can do in order to avoid a repeat performance.