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U.S. U-20s 0, Serbia 0: The SBI Breakdown

Cameron Carter-Vickers U-20 USMNT Serbia



Frustration, disappointment, and sadness were among the emotions the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team felt on Sunday. The U.S.’s World Cup dream had come to an end, and in heartbreaking fashion.

The Americans were knocked out of the World Cup after losing to Serbia in a dramatic penalty shootout in the quarterfinals. It took nine rounds of shots for a winner to be determined, but the Serbs were the ones to keep their composure better and convert more of their attempts en route to staying alive in the competition.

The shorthanded U.S. had chances to win the match at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland before it went to penalty kicks, but could not muster up the necessary quality in the final third. Tab Ramos’ side did do a good job of defending, which is why the game ended scoreless despite the fact that Serbia looked like the better team for prolonged periods.

Ultimately, it was not to be for the Americans. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen did his best to prevent the U.S. from falling in the penalty shootout, but the U.S. was unable to get the job done.

Here is what SBI is mulling over following the U.S.’s penalty-kick defeat to Serbia:


The U.S. may have failed to convert four of its nine penalties, including the final two. Still, there was really no one at fault for losing the shootout, 6-5.

Yes, John Requejo’s weak effort opened the door for Serbia’s winning strike, but the wild shootout was in its ninth round. Not only are most players extremely fatigued and nervous at that point, but the ones taking penalty kicks that late usually aren’t all that good at taking them.

Some may still want to point the finger at Rubio Rubin and Joel Sonora – who took the first and sixth shots, respectively – but there were chances to win the shootout after Rubin’s poor attempt and Sonora’s shot was cruelly denied by the woodwork.

U.S. goalkeeper Zack Steffen may have allowed a savable shot to slip under his right paw, but it would be misguided to try and lay blame on him after he again showed just how clutch he can be on penalty kicks.

Like in the game, the U.S. as a whole just was not better than Serbia during the penalty kicks. It was a collective letdown in the shootout, and the Americans going home as a result.


While penalty kicks can be a crap shoot, things had set up perfectly for the U.S. to make a potential run to the World Cup final. With Mali stunningly eliminating Germany on penalty kicks in their quarterfinals encounter, a winnable match was there to be played in the next round.

The Americans failed to get that far, however, in what is the latest example of a blown opportunity for U.S. Soccer.

There’s no denying that the U.S. is still growing as a soccer nation and in the process of garnering respect from around the world. But just reaching the tournament final, even at a youth level like this, would have given U.S. Soccer and these young American players a big dose of credibility. What such a run could have done for the program and these young players’ careers would have been huge, but unfortunately for the U.S. it was not be.

There might not be much shame in that given the level of the competition that is present this deep in a tournament, but the U.S. has consistently found ways to not capitalize on chances like this. The senior U.S. Men’s National Team missed out on an opportunity to play Leo Messi and Argentina at last summer’s World Cup, and four years prior in South Africa was unable to take advantage of a favorable path that could’ve led to a semifinals berth.

The U.S. needs to get over the hump at some point and make some real noise in order to really boost its standing in world soccer. The sooner it does, the better.


It was always going to be an uphill battle for the U.S. against Serbia because of the lack of offensive options on the bench, but that in and of itself reemphasized the point that the Americans are still lacking that final bit of quality that is needed to make deep runs in competitions.

This group of U.S. youngsters was talented, but the losses of forward Maki Tall and Bradford Jamieson to injury coupled with the suspension of midfielder Jordan Allen for this quarterfinals bout handcuffed head coach Tab Ramos. Joel Sonora was the only attacking player available to come off the bench against Serbia, with the rest of the reserves being either defenders or goalkeepers.

As unfortunate as that may have been, Ramos deserves part of the blame for that. The roster he called in always seemed to have one defensive option too many, especially after he oddly replaced injured midfielder Russell Canouse with centerback Conor Donovan.

That’s not to say that Donovan is a bad player, but the move did not seem to make much sense then and definitely does not now. Not when there were other options available like Philadelphia Union’s Zach Pfeffer, Cristian Roldan of the Seattle Sounders, and Columbus Crew midfielder Romain Gall, who, ironically enough, is one of the U.S.’s better penalty-kick takers.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but having one of them could have helped the U.S. conjure the final bit of quality that was needed to knock off a beatable Serbian team. It could have also potentially minimized the impact that Emerson Hyndman and Gedion Zelalem’s subpar performances had on the game for the Americans.

Simply put, the U.S. did not have enough horses in the stable.


The way the tournament ended may have made for another case of, ‘Oh, what could have been.’

Make no mistake about it, though. This U.S. team gave plenty of reasons for optimism.

From Steffen’s clutch penalty kick stops to the consistently stellar showings of centerback duo Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers, the Americans demonstrated that the program is headed in the right direction. There is professional talent coming through the pipeline with loads of potential, including Rubin, Desevio Payne, and Paul Arriola.

Even technical midfielders Hyndman and Zelalem showed enough in this tournament to be considered quality prospects, regardless of their subdued showings in the U.S.’s final two matches.

What’s next for these players is a return to their clubs, where they will need to continue to develop and find first-team minutes. Accomplishing that would surely make it tough to leave them off the upcoming Olympic qualifying roster this fall, especially after showing this month that they have what it takes it compete at a high level.


  1. In regards to it being partially Tab’s fault for not having more attacking options, I think that’s a huge case of hindsight being 20/20.

    Tab looked at his roster when Canouse went down and, without a like-for-like defensive midfielder to bring in, decided that it was more important for him to have a fourth CB than to have a tenth attacking option. I can’t really say I blame him for that. Sure, it’s easy to sit back now and say that he should have been comfortable with CCV, Miazga and EPB, but that would have been a HUGE risk heading into the tournament. It’s a risk I think he might have been comfortable with if Canouse had been there to anchor the midfield, but with him out and Delgado in, I think Tab was a little more nervous about the pressure the CB’s were going to be facing.

    One overzealous referee, one or two rash tackles/decisions from one of those young guys, and we would have found ourselves desperately thin at CB. Thankfully we avoided that and CCV and Miazga played incredible tournaments. But again, I can’t fault Tab for wanting extra cover back there.

    Anyway, all around solid tournament from the boys, tip of the cap to them and to Tab. Lots of good performances that have already been discussed, but the one that might be flying a little bit under the radar is Desevio Payne. That kid can flat out ball. With the way our RB pool looks, if he can get consistent playing time with Groningen and maybe get a shot with the Olympic squad, he could find himself in the senior team mix a lot sooner than we might expect.

    • Yes, it is a 20/20 hindsight, but also common sense. The original post states: “Joel Sonora was the only attacking player available to come off the bench against Serbia, with the rest of the reserves being either defenders or goalkeepers.” It appears that the team had too many defenders and not enough attacking players, particularly with quality players like Flores and Gall being left out. Even with 2 injuries to forwards, there should have been more than one attacking player on the bench in the elimination round. Wide midfielders probably had no legs left in the overtime against Serbia. Wouldn’t Gall, who was the top scorer at U20 Concacaf Championship, be a good one to have in reserve against Serbia? Or Flores with the creativity he offers?

  2. I’m fine with this result, top 8 in the World is a nice achievement. We are good but not great. You want to argue our youth developent now is on par with Chile, Russia and Denmark. Thats fine but we aren’t on par with Germany, Brazil and Argentina. Look at how many dual nationals we have developed by other nations. I’ll take quarterfinals.

  3. I agree with the analysis of the U-20s but can’t agree with the analysis of the “blown” chances at the last two world cups. In both instances the U.S. lost in extra time to teams with more talent. Ghana and especially Belgium had better players. That was not the case in the game against Serbia last night.

  4. I’m gutted for the boys. They played their hearts out, and came up just short.
    We again saw what Jurgen is talking about… Physicality.
    Serbia, as was Columbia, was just bigger and stronger than OUR boys, and it showed especially in the midfield.

    The first 25 minutes WE were dominant, IMHO, but we were unable to execute in the final third.
    That said, there were few if any clear cut chances for either sides in regulation time. Only after our boys were taxed in extra time, did they start to give up “golden ticket” chances ; 2 to be exact that Serbia should have put away, but didn’t.

    ORE boys just ran out of gas, FINALLY

    Even though OUR boys were understaffed by the loss of Maki Tall, Jordan Allen & BJ, they put up a brave fight. That’s 3 forwards missing in action, yet they were valiant. If Thompson was 3’ taller.
    That said, I’m excited at what I saw … the standouts for me were…
    Carter-Vicker “MUST” make the all-tournament team(.)
    Steffen was outstanding, and should also make the all-tournament team(.)
    Zelalem showed his quality
    Hyndman Is slightly ahead of Zelalam, but only due to 1st team playing time. They both need to hit the weight room to take their ample games to the next level.
    Arriola is a warrior
    Payne has massive upside
    Miazga’s future is very bright. His game improved with every match
    Rubin will be a regular in the senior national team, sooner rather than later.

  5. I think they brought enough attacking options. Unlike the USMNT WC which every thing was dependent on Jozy. You can’t plan on losing 2 strikers and losing a midfielder to injury and cards. It could have easily been the other way around. Lose two defenders and a defensive midfielder and we would have said need more defensive player.

    I liked Zelalem and he has a bright future, but maybe this was not the tournament to bring him into the picture. Its hard to learn to play with a whole new group of guys.

    Lots of good prospects in this group. Hopefully 2-3 make it to the Nats as regular starters.


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