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Ukraine 2, USMNT U-20s 1: The SBI Breakdown

¿A quien le han ganado?

That rhetorical question is one used in Latin American soccer circles regarding teams that have lots of good press and buzz but little in the way of a proven record. It translates literally to, ‘Who have they beaten?’ and is something that fit perfectly with this U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team before the World Cup started and now, most certainly, after.

The U.S. opened its U-20 World Cup campaign on Friday with a 2-1 loss vs. Ukraine. There was some good, some bad, and some ugly. Here are a few thoughts on the match:


It was refreshing to see a U.S. team look so comfortable and smooth in keeping the ball on the ground and maintaining possession, especially against a non-CONCACAF opponent. Rather then hoof and hope or trying to hit on the counter like so many other U.S. teams of recent memory, the Americans were good, mostly in the first half, with maintaining long spells of possession. They knocked the ball around patiently to try to find an opening in the organized Ukrainian defense, never really forcing things and resetting when they had to. That calmness on the ball is what helped them finish the match with 67% possession.

Though the U.S. conceded first (more on that in a bit), the equalizer was born out of the type of impressively quick interplay that we have rarely ever seen from an American side. Sergino Dest found Brandon Servania, who played to Paxton Pomykal, who returned the ball to Dest, who passed a bit too wide for Tim Weah but close enough that he could still unleash a low cross back to Servania.

Put more clearly: Dest –> Servania –> Pomykal –> Dest –> Weah –> Servania.

While the 32nd-minute goal was certainly a sight to behold, moments like that were too few and far between. For all the possession the Americans had, they failed to penetrate the compact and physical Ukrainian defense once they got into the final third. Most of the rest of the U.S.’s best scoring chances on the day came from shots from distance from Alex Mendez, and that simple is not good enough when you have the ball as much as the Americans did.

The U.S. should have mixed things up a bit in the second half, which it tried by pushing Weah out wide, but just did not seem to have many ideas for how to create space or pass through the lines. Instead, they tried to force it down the wings over and over again in an attempt to work from the outside back in. The Ukrainians figured that out after conceding the equalizer, though, and refused to be beaten like that again.


Most American teams in recent memory have not been great handlers of the ball, but they have been fairly tough defensively. Friday’s group was not that.

Both goals the Americans conceded came a bit too easily. The first occurred when Heorhiy Tsitaishvili recognized the positional advantage Serhiy Buletsa had over Dest, who failed to stay goal-side of the Ukrainian winger. Buletsa then unleashed a ridiculously accurate pass, and Dest doubled down on his initial mistake by trying to win the ball aerially instead of positionally. His poor decision allowed Buletsa to use his body to allow the ball to bounce forward before finishing to the near post.

The second, and decisive, tally also came off a pinpoint ball, though this time it was Buletsa providing the service instead of finishing it. He whipped in a good cross with some real zing behind it from the left corner and placed it just outside the six-yard box, the sweet spot for a team attacking a corner kick because of how difficult it is for a goalkeeper to come out that far.

The play needed to be resolved by some solid marking, but centerback Chris Richards shut off, even if only for a second, as he was trailing Denys Popov on the entire play. Making matters worse, Richards then failed to make any contact with Popov when leaping to contest the header, allowing the Ukrainian to direct his header on frame with ease. If you are going to lose an aerial battle, and you will, you at least have to make the opponent uncomfortable so as to try and throw him off. Richards did not.

If the U.S. is to avoid a short run at this World Cup, costly mistakes like these cannot happen again.


Head coach Tab Ramos talked two weeks ago about how he saw Weah’s long-term future as a winger, but he also mentioned that he was intrigued enough by the youngster’s qualities to want to use him as a striker with this U-20 side.

That is exactly what Ramos did to start this match, much to Weah’s and the Americans’ detriments. Because of his lack movement and feel for the game as a No. 9, Weah never really found the game up top nor did he get the ball in dangerous central positions during the opening 45 minutes. It is not a coincidence that his biggest play came when he made a run out wide and crossed the ball in to assist on the U.S. equalizer.

Ramos seemed to recognize that and moved Weah out to the wing in the 4-3-3 formation to start the second half, but the speedy attacker did not fare much better there. Weah was invisible for much of the second stanza, looking out of sync with his teammates and repeatedly trying to go it alone, only to get the ball taken from him by the swarming Ukrainians.

It is true that Weah has not been with this group before and that he is learning how these new teammates like to play on the fly. That said, Weah has more experience than the rest of the group and he needs to use that to find a way to make more of an impact in the attacking end.


  1. Watched most of the first half, we were dominating possession against a bunker and counter team. It was interesting to see us being the more skilled team but getting beat on a defensive mistake for their first goal, completely against the rin of play. Our goal is one of thr most beautiful goal I have ever seen from a US side. I am hopeful for the future.

  2. Not sure how good the Ukrainian side was suppose to be, but these games happen. The U.S. Outplayed them by far and got beat by a sit and bunker organized team that took advantage when it open up. I thought the US played good except for a few mistakes and it cost them. Lot of negative reactions to this game. I saw positive control of the ball and fluid passing which hasn’t been their strong point in the pass. Maybe they got a little over hyped but lets wait till after Mondays game

  3. I get he’s a bit of problem child but still think we should have took Carleton. He’s still probably the most creative player in the pool and can make passes that unlock defenses. He showed that coming off the bench in the recently friendlies.

  4. Weah has always seemed to me to be a player with all the physical tools and skill to be successful, but he seems unable to routinely find a place that will really help himself and his team on the field. I hope he figures it out.

    There were several US players guilty of the same lapses on defense as the ones who were punished for their mistakes.

    On the attack as they got into the penalty area and the Ukrainian defenders swarmed the ball, too seldom did US players present themselves in open positions and on the few occasions they did the man with the ball failed to deliver a good pass. It was as if the US players expected their man to dribble through 5 guys then just stood and watched him fail. (Sure that is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is not that far off.)

    • Agree re Weah. To me this seems like a direct function of really not ever having anything that might be called “consistent senior minutes” yet in his career. I have never seen him look seamlessly integrated into the system for the US, Celtic, or PSG. He has been a spot-starter and and “impact sub” but he is missing out on what he needs most right now, which is a chance to own a role. I really hope he goes somewhere next season where he can be a consistent starter. Aint’ gonna be PSG…. but with his pedigree he should have interest from many clubs/leagues. He might even be best off if PSG sells him, as opposed to another loan.

  5. The US is 1-2-9 (1-3-8 if you count Serbia PK loss as a draw) against UEFA teams in the U20 WC since 2001. Of course that was a 6-1 thrashing of Poland in 2007, a brace by Szetla, hat trick by Adu, and the last by Altidore.

  6. Dest in my opinion mentally did not show up for this game. Very much out of sync with the rest of his teammates and the poor positioning on the first goal, the poor header just before half time that gave away possession and leading to a Ukraine corner. I believe he too has not played much with this group of players like Weah and one can only hope that he improves along with Weah going forward while in this youth World Cup.

  7. It’s not over African teams are very athletic and have great striking outside the box. U.S will have to improve defensively at the back and pressure in the midfield while also creating chances. Weah was alone I don’t think he is a true winger to compare conrad de la Fuente looked like a winger and more that’s what needs to be created on both sides of the wing. Not the first time weah is is absent for most of game he has been a non factor at times for usnat. I expect a change on that side of wing and up top.

    • Congratulations BrianK you are the first to post a racist comment about Nigeria. Ukraine was more physically developed today, why no questioning of the European club? Is it that only African countries would cheat or is it their appearance? Yes, in some African cultures birthdays are not celebrated so there is some discrepancy as to when someone is born but that’s the difference of a month or two, not years. Second, nutrition plays a role in African players looking more muscular. Third, young Africans tend to have to do more physical labor and do not typically have motorized transportation so they may look more fit then the American who played Fortnite for three hours before his mom drove him in the minivan to practice. Last when American kids develop physically at a young age they are most often swept up by football and basketball. Tell me, take the freshman and sophomores on any college football team and put them in a Nigeria kit they wouldn’t look just the same.

    • Guess what when this type of comment only comes out with African teams it’s racist. I doubt BrianK meant to be racist, but his comment is based on the idea because of their African heritage they are either purposely deceiving or don’t know their own age. So when you place negative traits on people based on their race that’s racism.

      • Wow , what stupid explanation.. so, when somebody called me latin or spanish …thats racism? .Please do not play that stupid game…

      • Johnny – I think Nigeria has a track record of cheating when it comes to using overage players in youth competitions. I’m not saying this is the case for the current Nigeria U20s, but they have a reputation for doing it. Don’t think the original comment was a racist….

      • Seriously, johnnyrazor. None of this makes any sense as a response to BrianK’s comment, which is scarcely racist. Perhaps you were responding to Fairjudge’s comment above?

    • Hernando- no one accuses Hispanic-American citizens of being illegal? Clearly you live in a different America than me! I’m the racist because why exactly? Brian’s joke might get a chuckle from non-Africans but the implication that African teams are only successful because they cheat has a different effect to the people who are the brunt of the joke.

    • Sad. Really sad. JohnnyRazor’s attack is typical of today’s broader discourse…”hey,…I don’t a like or I’m otherwise ignorant with respect to your comment,…so your a raaaaaccccciiiissssstt!”

      JohnnyRazor,…why don’t you Google “Age Fraud in Association Football.” Pay particular attention to the references. Maybe you’ll learn something. Or are all of the authors rrrraaaaaaacccciiiistt? Do yourself a favor and stop playing the victim.

      • BrianK if you were just an astute individual that follows closely fringe issues in football then I apologize. Of course FIFA has been using age scans for 10 years and there is no evidence or even suggestions that this squad has any illegal players. Not to mention that there have been age fraud allegations in South America, Asia, and Central America as well but comments like the one you posted are never made about those countries.

  8. I think that this analysis is harsher than the team deserves. It is hard to score on a team that bunkers in like Ukraine did and only the first Ukrainian goal was really bad defense, IMO. On a corner anything can happen and this time it did. BTW, Mexico lost 2-1 to Italy and I thought we outplayed Ukraine more than Mexico played better than Italy. European teams are hard to beat.

    • With you. I was very impressed by this teams technical skill and possession. First game but on the ball, they look better than last u20 wc team.

      Mendez hit atleast 2 posts.

      Weah had a nice assist but wish Tab would put him up top. Especially playing a tough defensive team. Too many quiet spells from being on the wing.

      • I wasn’t able to watch much of the game but read through a couple live threads and breakdowns across several sites. Half the people are saying Weah was terrible as a CF and is obviously a winger, and the other half are saying he was terrible on the wing and is clearly a better forward. Tells me he probably wasn’t very good anywhere. He’s a player from what I’ve seen with the US teams and highlights in Scotland, likes to have space to run, Ukraine apparently limited that today.

    • Weah wasn’t good anywhere, apart from the assist. It’s clear from this match why none of these guys have broken through with their clubs (MLS guys excepted). The first goal showed that Dest has a major deficiency in positioning and physicality in defense. Weah simply doesn’t have the technical skill to break down defenders and he isn’t fast enough to just beat them with speed. His passing isn’t great and his decision making leaves me wondering at times. I give Konrad a bit of a break because he’s younger and he had some good moments, but his end product was non-existent and he seems to lack that final burst. Mendez had a couple of amazing shots, but lacks speed and was invisible for most of the match. I kind of feel like we’re becoming Mexico circa 2000. Lots of flash, not much substance.

      • The usual story with our youth teams. They are advertised constantly as the second coming of American miracle on field only to crash the expectations of us self-congratulatory adepts. The commentary is not too harsh to our team, it’s too soft.

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