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Ukraine 3, U.S. U-20s 0: The SBI Breakdown

Bradford Jamieson U.S. U-20s Ukraine 11



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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


  1. This article is way off base after watching the game. Way too harsh on the criticism. The first half was not one sided for Ukraine. It was an open game with both sides having a few looks on goal. We did not capitalize and neither did Ukraine. What I saw was a young team that looked mentally and physically drained. A team whose depth is perhaps not as good as we thought. Acosta has yet to have a good game. Zach Steffens is just horrible with distribution especially and he does not appear to have a good command of his box.

  2. The section about Steffen, was really quite nonsensical. “You make it clear from that start” that none of the goals were Steffen’s fault but then criticize him for not making any blockbuster saves?!?

    What exactly do you want him to do?

  3. I said it before the game, the US has never done well against Eastern block type countries. The 1st 10 minutes was good from the US. Then we completely let off pressure and sat back in our half of the field. Was that a tactic?

    This allowed Ukraine to maintain possession and build confidence. Whenever you stay back and give the other team time on the ball, if they are a good team they will hurt you.

    If it was a tactic, then the blame is on Ramos.

  4. Didn’t watch the game, but I feel like the analysis is being quite harsh on the players. This is a youth tournament – you have to expect some ups and downs. Its an unfortunate result, but they are on to the second round in a decent position.

    • I think some criticism is fair. This is a youth tournament but this isn’t a U15 team. These guys are professionals and many of them are first-team players. Sure, it’s possible to be over the top but I think the criticism is generally fair.

    • Many as young or younger than this bunch are already risking their lives in the US Armed forces. Try something else, please.

  5. The biggest difference I noticed this game was the refusal/fear by the U.S. to play the ball out of the back. All of a sudden the game-plan was for Steffen to boot the ball up field to Jameison every single time and hope Jameison could flick a header to someone. Ukraine won the majority of those long balls. Add to that the fact that the U.S. went away from the high-press, and you have to assume that Ramos and his staff saw something before the match that told him they aren’t as good on the ball as Ukraine is so they had to play it safe. I didn’t like it.

    • Horrible. I can’t count how many long balls the US made. It was ridiculous. They didn’t remotely play out of the back. I only watched the first half (I recorded the game) and it was so bad that I came to SBI to see if it would stay that way, so I’m glad I didn’t waste my time. They didn’t stick to high press like you said, and they just sat around. Jamieson didn’t put any pressure on the centerbacks, and was willing to stand around picking his nose. They also just made some terrible passes.

      And for god’s sakes the ads on this website are becoming ridiculous. I’ve been coming here for years and I’m not sure if I want to continue as often because my browser consistently moves slow as hell and I was finally happy to get an i7 and quality internet but jesus christ SBI I really like your coverage but these ads drive me nuts.

      And yes i’m grumpy because it’s been cold and rainy for 3 days and that game was painful.

  6. Miazga was sitting on a yellow and I believe Rubin was at well. Ukraine was the better team and some people thought they would win the group anyway. yeah I thought Thompson would get a run out as well but on to the next match

  7. It wasn’t really that bad, but we did enter the match with a tactical disadvantage. A first time pairing at center back and playing Jamieson as a lone forward were mistakes to begin with, but the problem was Ukraine’s quality and counter attacking tactics. We were not equipped for probing possession, and so lost too many balls while committed forward. We had the players for bunker and counter, but got out-bunker and countered.

    I’m not all that upset with the result. Good for the players to have this bitter taste now to motivate them to play better in the knockout stage.

  8. Why didn’t Ramos sub tommy Thompson to at least give a different look out there??? The kid is quality and was sorely missed in this game.

  9. “much of the talk after the 4-0 rout of New Zealand centered around…”

    Pet peeve of mine. It’s impossible to center around something. You can only center on something.

  10. The loss of Rubin was tremendous. When he finally came into the game late he was actually able to execute holdup play and start the offense, but at that point it was too little too late.

  11. I didn’t see the game and it sounds like it wouldn’t have made a difference but not playing the best XI available was a mistake and sent the wrong message. Now we’ll face a much tougher second round opponent. To me the second round game pretty much determines whether this is a successful world cup or not.

    • it wasn’t so much the starting 11, but that they went into a defensive shell from the start. Imo the players in this squad need to be in attach mode to get the best result

      • The US team mailed this game in and played for 0-0. As usual with that tactic, that resulted in one of those 0’s being correct.

        I will never personally understand why coaches believe that playing for 0-0 is a reliable tactic, especially when you have a youth team playing together who do not usually play together. You have to be a tight-knit machine to pull something like that off.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if the coaches wanted either of Columbia or Senegal rather than the potential 3rd place sleeping giants in Mexico, Serbia, Uruguay, Nigeria, (as well as Columbia or Senegal as well).

      • Teams play for a scoreless tie because more times than not they can produce that; especially better teams. There has to be some rough balance of power – U16s couldn’t play to not allow Bayern Munich to score.

        Defensive shell is one of three main tactical approaches, the other being direct attack and possession. A team should strive to be good a two of the three, because there’s a rock-paper-scissors aspect to these approaches. Defense beats possession, possession beats direct attack, and direct attack beats defense. So a team should be able to subtly shift its approach per the situation and what the opponent is doing.

        I didn’t see this game so I can’t say whether this looked like a defensive shell gone wrong, or just a flat team taking a break because they already made next round (or playing someone who just flat out was three goals better).

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