By FRANCO PANIZO
After getting off to a perfect start that clinched an early place in the World Cup’s Round of 16, the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team came crashing back down to earth with a lifeless performance that few saw coming.
The U.S. was beaten handily on Friday, as Ukraine used a hat-trick from Viktor Kovalenko in the second half to hand the Americans a 3-0 defeat in their Group A finale. The result was not a case of the scoreline failing to accurately reflect what happened on the field, as it perfectly illustrated the dominance that the Ukrainians had at North Harbor Stadium.
From almost the start of the game in Auckland, Ukraine was the better side. The European nation knocked the ball around with ease against a U.S. team that refused to press high up the field. Ukraine won the ball back quickly when it didn’t have possession, and created the majority of the match’s quality scoring chances.
For the Americans, frustrations mounted. The midfield had trouble holding onto the ball, the defense was constantly under siege, and a golden chance to claim first place slipped through their fingers.
Here is what SBI is mulling over following the U.S.’s 3-0 loss to Ukraine:
QUESTIONS RAISED OVER HOW U.S. CAN FARE vs. QUALITY OPPONENTS
What a difference three days makes. Or in the U.S.’s case, one match.
The Americans were riding a tall wave of confidence this week after routing tournament hosts New Zealand on Tuesday with a complete performance, but all that momentum went out the window quickly on Friday as the U.S. found itself pinned inside its own half without any real idea as to how to get out.
While the midfield shoulders a lot of the blame (more on that later), the Americans as a whole failed vs. the Ukrainians. The U.S. had no answers for a Ukraine team that, unlike the previous two Group A opponents, attempted to play and stayed organized and disciplined defensively.
The abysmal showing from Tab Ramos’ side not only left a lot to be desired, but raised serious questions about the U.S.’s ability to compete with more talented teams. Yes, the likes of Rubio Rubin and Desevio Payne were benched, but the Americans have now turned in two disappointing performances in three matches at this World Cup.
The first subpar outing was in the 2-1 win against a motivated but inferior Myanmar side that the other Group A teams routed, and the second was in this debacle vs. Ukraine. The U.S. cannot afford to play so poorly anymore, especially since the opposition is only going to get tougher.
HYNDMAN, ZELALEM FAIL TO MAKE AN IMPACT
Much of the talk after the 4-0 rout of New Zealand was about how well Gedion Zelalem and Emerson Hyndman played. Much of the talk after this loss won’t be.
Zelalem and Hyndman suffered their first real setbacks of the World Cup, as both of them failed to leave their stamps on the game. Zelalem was largely invisible, and only occasionally did he find himself on the ball looking for teammates to link up with. Hyndman was even worse. He was not only more of a ghost throughout the 90 minutes, but he failed to convert the crucial penalty kick that would have pulled the Americans level.
Part of the reason for the duo’s struggles was simply due to the U.S.’s overall lack of effort and aggressiveness. The Americans were far too passive in this match, failing to move the ball quickly and accurately while also allowing Ukraine time and space to knock passes around easily.
Still, Zelalem and Hyndman are expected to bring composure to the U.S. midfield. They didn’t on Friday, and while no one is immune to bad games, the U.S. simply cannot afford a repeat of that going forward.
STEFFEN NOT LIVING UP TO HIS BILLING
Let’s make this clear from the start: None of the goals the U.S. allowed were goalkeeper Zack Steffen’s fault. The wall should’ve done a better job on the free kick, and there was nothing he could do on the other two finishes inside the penalty area.
That being said, Steffen has yet to come up with any of the big-time saves in this tournament that he’s previously shown that he can make. The 20-year-old netminder made a couple of good blocks against New Zealand, but only one of those came when the match was still hanging in the balance.
Steffen has shown a good command of his penalty area, and been very smart with when to come off and when to stay rooted to his goal line. He has not, however, made the type of highlight-reel stops that both drop jaws and keep the U.S. in advantageous positions. You know, like the penalty-kick parry he had in the World Cup qualifying game that punched the Americans’ tickets to New Zealand.
It’s unlikely that any such save on Friday would have prevented the lackluster U.S. from losing, but Steffen needs to come through and deliver in the knockout rounds if the Americans wish to have any shot at making a deep run.
ARRIOLA-JAMIESON PARTNERSHIP DIDN’T WORK
Ramos opted to rest Rubio Rubin at the start of this one, but it was a move that proved quite costly.
The U.S. began the game against Ukraine with Bradford Jamieson and Paul Arriola as the forward pairing. Jamieson and Arriola had both played well in their previous appearances in the World Cup – each of them scored vs. New Zealand – but that was with Rubin on the field to help occupy defenders.
As a tandem, Jamieson and Arriola simply did not work. The two of them played too far apart, which may have been expected given Arriola’s natural tendency to drift wide, and neither of them provided the kind of hold-up play that could have helped calm things down for the Americans.
Some may want to point the finger at Ramos for this decision, but his hands were essentially tied. Rubin likely needed the rest after starting back-to-back games following a grueling first Eredivisie campaign, and the injury to Maki Tall in the opener vs. Myanmar meant that the U.S. had no other forwards on the roster that could get others involved while also proving to be a threat himself.
You can pencil Rubin back into the lineup for the next match, and that should help the U.S. tremendously no matter who they face.
MIAZGA WAS SORELY MISSED
Another player whose absence was largely felt was Matt Miazga, the lanky centerback that Ramos recently told SBI was the leader of the back line.
With Miazga sitting this one out as a precaution, Erik Palmer-Brown got his first start next to Cameron Carter-Vickers in the heart of the defense. Palmer-Brown and Carter-Vickers started out well as partners, but neither was able to provide the type of leadership or underrated range of passing that Miazga brings.
The former trait would have certainly come in handy as Ukraine poured on the attacking pressure, but it is not too surprising that neither Carter-Vickers or Palmer-Brown were able to command or organize the back line. Carter-Vickers and Palmer-Brown are among the youngest players on this U.S. squad at 17- and 18-years old, respectively, and neither has developed the type of presence that can lead a defense.
It may explain why at times right back Shaquell Moore seemed to be on a different page than the rest of the back four, and why there was a lack of communication between Carter-Vickers and Palmer-Brown on who was supposed to mark the wide open Viktor Kovalenko on Ukraine’s second goal.