Tab Ramos knows the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team started World Cup qualifying on the wrong foot. They were up a man early, in control, and they conceded what turned out to be the game’s only goal. It was a disappointing tournament-opening defeat, one which makes the road to the World Cup that much tougher.
Still, Ramos has felt this pressure before. He’s seen tournament losses and setbacks, and his groups have endured them along the way.
Saturday’s loss to Panama remains an obvious setback. Up a man for nearly the entire match, the U.S. was thoroughly outperformed by a tough Panama team to raise the stakes going forward. A second-place finish in the opening round would likely see the U.S. paired with Costa Rica and Mexico in the tournament’s second stage, a difficult proposition all things considered. You can also add in the loss of midfielder Tyler Adams to the equation, leaving the U.S. without one of its starting options.
Ramos remains positive, though. In 2015, the U.S. made a run all the way to the World Cup quarterfinals after beginning qualifying in lackluster fashion. The team secured just one point from the first two games before cruising through the remaining games of the group stage en route to a World Cup berth.
The new format is slightly different, but the message remains clear: the U.S. U-20s aren’t dead yet.
“We are obviously a little bit disappointed with the result, in particular being a man up for that long of a period of time and not being able to win the game,” Ramos said. “It’s certainly a big disappointment, but the tournament is long and these sort of things happen here. Last time we started with a loss and a tie and went to the World Cup. Certainly, we’re hoping that we get better as the tournament rolls on.”
The U.S. was, obviously, far from good on Saturday. Possession was not a problem as the U.S. maintained a lion’s share of the ball, but everything and anything that came after it proved problematic. There were few chances created by attacking players, save for a header from Jeremy Ebobisse that clanged the crossbar. The best attacker on the field was arguably centerback Justen Glad, who turned in a Man of the Match-worthy performance even before firing two attempts on goal in the game’s waning moments.
Creative players just weren’t creative and attacking players just didn’t attack. It was an uninspiring performance from a team that saw the group’s biggest flaw rear its ugly head. In the lead up to the tournament, Ramos stressed that the attack needed to step up and, on Saturday, they didn’t.
Now, part of that is a credit to Panama, who defended extremely well with 10 men for well over two-thirds of the match. However, part of that is on the U.S., who needs to avoid falling flat like that again against two upcoming opponents with much less talent on the field.
“Things are difficult,” Ramos said, “and once you fall behind the way we did, the other team gets comfortable sitting back and countering, it becomes a difficult game.”
“(Panama) is a tough team and this is a tough environment to play in,” added captain Erik Palmer-Brown, who started as a deep-lying midfielder. “We were expecting that. We came out and we came out fast and then we backed off a little bit and I think that was our downfall. We have to bounce back. We have two more games and we’re ready to get back to those games.”
Tuesday afternoon brings a clash with Haiti, a team which crushed St. Kitts & Nevis, 5-1, in their tournament opener. It’s a virtual must-win for the U.S. if they want any hope of advancing, even with the group’s minnows awaiting in the last game. Even a draw would set the U.S. up for an uphill climb.
Ramos understands that, and he believes his group does too. The focus now turns towards Haiti, not back towards Panama nor forward towards St. Kitts & Nevis, as the U.S. looks to climb out of the early hole they dug for themselves.
“We just now have to worry about Haiti and winning the next game,” Ramos said, “and then we can start worrying about the rest after that.”