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USMNT U-20s 1, Qatar 0: The SBI Breakdown

What the hell was that?

If you are asking yourself that question in the aftermath of the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team’s 1-0 win over Qatar, you are not alone. The Americans turned in their ugliest and most concerning performance of the U-20 World Cup on Friday, playing abysmally for 75 minutes before Tim Weah saved the day with a tidy finish.

The win ensured the U.S. advanced to the knockout rounds of the competition as Group D runner-up, but simultaneously raised many questions as to how good this squad really is.

Here are a few thoughts on the match:


The Americans may have gotten the result, but this was by far their worst game in Poland.

The possession-based soccer that had come to define them over the first two games was nonexistent from the start. So too was any semblance of a press. Rather than try to impose themselves on the opponent and dictate the tempo, the U.S. was toothless in the attack and tentative defensively. We didn’t see any of those quick combination passes that we saw against Ukraine and Nigeria. We also didn’t see the same type of swarming defense. We could not even really tell what the gameplan was. It was just downright awful.

Given the level of the opposition, you can chalk all that up to one or both of the following:

  1. Nerves
  2. Fatigue

While the U.S. was playing for its place in the next round, much has been said about this group’s swagger and self-belief. If we take that at face value and rule out nerves, then all signs point to tired legs being the reason for this flat performance and that falls on the shoulders of head coach Tab Ramos.

This was the Americans’ third game in seven days and rather than rotate a few players, particularly those in the midfield sitting on yellow cards, Ramos went with largely the same lineup that he had used prior. Only three changes were made to the lineup, in fact, and one was a goalkeeper swap. The other two alterations were the uncomfortable deployment of a natural centerback to the right back spot and the insertion of a more defensive-minded midfielder for one of the more creative players on the roster. The lineup spelled reactive.

Ramos may not have wanted to lose the cohesion the starting group had, but World Cups typically require you to tap into your depth. By having most of the same players on the field from the start Ramos was banking on, and overestimating, his players’ ability to bring the same intensity for the third time in a week. They were unable to and just narrowly squeaked out a victory in the process.


Three games is a decent sample size, and one thing that has been made clear during the group stage is the U.S. has a lot of style with the ball but not a lot of substance.

For the third straight match, the Americans failed to generate many clear-cut scoring chances. Weah’s goal, though exquisitely taken by the winger, was born out of a poor touch from Mohammed Waed Abdulwahhab while Qatar tried to build up an attack from the back.

It wasn’t some nice, intricate passing sequence from the U.S. that carved open Qatar. It wasn’t an incredible counterattack that broke the deadlock. It wasn’t even a solo dribbling run. No, it was simply a Qatar mistake and, subsequently to the Americans’ credit, a superbly taken effort.

Fighting for its World Cup lives, the Qataris began to more recklessly throw numbers forward in search of an equalizer and it was then that the U.S. began to look more dangerous in the final third. Yes, late substitutes Ulysses Llanez and Richard Ledezma made the most of their second-half cameos by looking lively, but they had extra space to maneuver in because Qatar had to go for it.

While fatigue surely played a role on Thursday, the U.S. not finding a way to really test Qatar until those final 15 minutes is concerning because it shows the poor chance creation has become a trend. Honestly, you can probably count all the Americans’ good looks prior to last quarter-hour of the group finale in one hand (or just watch the match highlights here, here, and here):

  • Brandon Servania’s goal vs. Ukraine
  • Mendez’s low shot vs. Ukraine
  • Tim Weah’s breakaway shot vs. Nigeria
  • Sebastian Soto’s second goal vs. Nigeria

The Americans, for all their possession and combination play this tournament, have not had an abundance of quality looks in front of goal. If they are to advance from the Round of 16, let alone make a deep run, they have to find a way to get better at creating opportunities in the final third.

It is good to have Mendez’s cannon of a shot as a weapon in your arsenal, but it can’t be your go-to one. As of Thursday, it has been.


Aboubacar Keita’s ugly giveaway in the 36th minute might have been one of the game’s biggest plays and makeshift right back Mark McKenzie may have offered next to nothing to tbe attack, but the back line as a whole held up impressively well.

Despite being under siege for much of the game because the exhausted midfield was quickly getting bypassed by the Qataris, the U.S. defense did well with its individual assignments. Centerback tandem Keita and Chris Richards put out attacks before they could turn into dangerous looks on goal, while Chris Gloster was his usual reliable two-way self on the left. McKenzie did not offer the same outlet in possession, but he avoided lapses like the one he had vs. Nigeria that almost led to a penalty kick.

Then, there was reserve goalkeeper David Ochoa, who stepped into the lineup for Brady Scott so seamlessly that you have to wonder whether Ramos is rethinking who should be the No. 1 for the Round of 16. Ochoa was quick off his line, most notably on the 2-on-1 play that could have led to a Qatari goal, and sure in his decisions. He wasn’t overly tested or called upon even in the face of so much pressure (a testament to the back four in front of him) but was sturdy and a key component to the Americans getting the win.

Tougher foes await and the midfield will have to do more in providing resistance in those games, but this U.S. back line has made strides from the opening game, when juvenile marking allowed Ukraine to score two goals. There’s a reason the Americans have back-to-back cleansheets, after all.


One good thing, other than the result, that came out of the match against Qatar was that midfielder Richard Ledezma saw his first minutes of the tournament. He looked good after coming on in the 84th minute, too, moving the ball better than most of his teammates and showing the type of energy and aggressiveness on both sides that was largely lacking.

Ledezma’s performance should give Ramos plenty of confidence in giving the 18-year-old reserve his first start in the next round against France (or Mali). Lineup regulars Mendez and Chris Durkin are out for that game due to suspensions, and Ledezma seems both ready and a good fit to replace the former.

A trio of Pomykal (who is sure to return to the starting XI) at the 10, Ledezma as the 8, and Servania as the 6 should not see much of a drop-off from Ramos’ preferred three. If any at all.


  1. The problem this whole time has been Tab Ramos. He is a fantastic coach that can find talent and drill that talent to do great things but he is absolutely god awful at picking who should be playing and what the strat should be against specific teams.

    In Game 1, we 100% would have won this game if we had:
    1) Moved weah to the LW, Soto at the 9, Servania on the bench where he belongs, Mendez, Pom and Durkin in the middle. Rest is fine. Instead, Tab had some extremely strange setup that made Weah the lone striker which he isn’t good at, moved Pom or Mendez more towards the wings where they don’t belong and then Servania as part of the creative attacking middle which he isn’t.

    Even with all of these terrible decisions we dominated possession in that game. That game could have been much better if Tab didn’t choose such a weird setup that was more defensive even though we all knew we would have more possession.

    Game 2 was closer to what we should always be running. It plays to our strengths as a possession/attacking team. Servania really does need to ride pine though. Tab’s insistence on starting him over his better counterpart Cerrillo will doom this team.

    Game 3: Basically, lets have a similar tactic as game one and be more defensive against a team that should have gotten steam rolled. Lets also not rest Mendez who is already on a yellow and replace him with Ledezma to begin with. Same goes for Durkin and Cerrillo. Araujo instead of McKenzie at RB. The list of idiotic decisions is very long indeed. The US looked terrible this game and it is 100% on the coach. Has nothing to do with our players.

    My guess is we try and bunker France when we suck at bunkering. We should just try using our most talented and creative players at their proper positions and try and take the game to them. But we won’t, and we will lose either way, but the Tab way will make us look bad in the process.

  2. The crux of the SBI game review is this: “A trio of Pomykal (who is sure to return to the starting XI)…” Pomykal did not start; Pomykal did not even play in the game. Unless he is not fit, he will surely start against France. He’s the driving force and the glue that holds everything together. The team cannot be close to its best (as we plainly saw against Qatar) unless Pomykal plays. Maybe, just maybe, it was a great decision by Ramos to rest him, knowing the team has no chance against France unless Pomykal is its driving force.

  3. If you guys were coaching this team, you’d make the same selection. As talented as this group is, they struggle to play as one. Previous u20 teams were over-reliant on two or three players, this team gets it (barely) in that everyone has to make a difference. Not just Weah, Mendez, Pomykal or Soto. What concerns me is the lack of urgency, especially after a turnover.

  4. FWIW, in the build-up to hosting the WC in 2022, Qatar has invested heavily in their program (both internally and through doling out citizenships).

    And their senior team are the current champions of Asia. Just sayin’…because this wasn’t a blowout perhaps all isn’t on the USYNT…as cynical as we may be.

    Now Honduras…match fixing? That is inexplicable.

  5. Also that Ochoa kid has trained with Manchester United before. He is also eligable for Mexico. I also saw online he has interest from Germany and Spain.I loved how aggressive and about it in his decisions.

  6. Man We la Fuente has been awful this tournament. He keeps on not playing well we will see an article here on SBI like Olusende about De La Fuente getting released by Barcelona. He needs to step up. Didn’t we have another kid at Barcelona. Think his name was Ben think last name started with a L. I wonder how his development is going?

  7. SBI has been very negative and extremely critical of the US from the very first game. I don’t know why this site seems to think that the US was going to waltz through the tournament. You really never know what teams are going to show up. It looks likely that the US will be the only CONCACAF team to move on. Honduras lost 12-0 to Norway (that is not a typo). Also, in their last game Qatar lost only 1-0 to Ukraine, despite being a man down for the last half dozen minutes or so. So, while the first half was very disappointing, the US, despite what the article says, was the dominant side in the second half almost from the beginning and could have easily won by 2 or 3 goals. Also, regarding Ramos’ decisions, the writer seems to have overlooked the fact that Qatar was obviously improving, not a sure win, and the US had to win to ensure that it would move on. I don’t fault him for playing a lot of the same players, especially since you are dealing with young men who should be at the peak of fitness.

    • This team has been talked about as being the most-talented U.S. U-20 team of all-time and people, including fellow colleagues, were predicting them to get to the semifinals. The hype has been in overdrive from the start despite the team clearly being limited.
      I would disagree wholeheartedly that the U.S. was the dominant side in the second half. They created next to nothing. Only after the Weah goal happened and Qatar had to go into more of an attack-mode did the U.S. begin to find more spaces to take advantage of, which they did well but still failed to capitalize on.
      As for Ramos, yes, the U.S. needed a win. If this is the most talented U-20 U.S. team, however, then they should have been able to get that even with switching a couple more players, which they especially needed to do in midfield given that two starters were already sitting on yellows. A midfield of Pomykal, Ledezma, and Servania should have been able to get the job done. It might now have to vs. France.

      • I’m pretty sure most observers would regard this article as a fair assessment.

        Go Mali.

      • I agree this is prolly the most talented pool the U.S. has had at this level but don’t other nations also get better and this could be some of their most talented kids too. So just because the U.S. Has gotten better doesn’t mean other nations haven’t, still behind the top countries around the world but headed in the right way.

    • I thought the US u20 was poor against Qatar. We lacked the focus and mentality to place a inferior opponent under pressure and deserved to be behind at half. The side improved in the 2nd half but it was more LVG at Man United control, as opposed to Sir Alex era United attacking dominance. Weah bailed the team out with a class move and finish.

      This is still an impressive US side. Ramos has the team playing nice, composed soccer. Sometimes I would watch the first team under Bruce Arena’s second go and go ten, fifteen minutes without seeing the USMNT put together more than 7 passes in a row. Where as this u20 can actually move the ball in tight spaces. Gloster, Weah, Richards, De La Fuente, Soto, Menez all look like they could have good first team careers with European sides in quality leagues. Others too.

      But it was always laughable to place this much hype on this team. Semi-finals? lol. Isn’t our u20 world cup record against European sides something like 1-9-3? Despite being technically superior to Ukraine, the u20 side couldn’t beat them because Ukraine were tactically superior, and it was clear Ukraine had way more experience playing matches at a higher level through European youth competitions.

      USSF, its mainstream reporters, and close connection of coaches within the MLS and US club system had every reason to over-hype this team. And they did. Given the first team’s disastrous form over the past few years, USSF was always going to lean very hard on this generation of players because a lot of them are all at respectable clubs. A sort of see ‘we are back!’ ‘no need to make major changes!’ ‘everything is fine!’ Just wait until the Gold Cup starts to really watch the hype train get going.

      In my view Franco Panizo can go in as hard as he wants until the program demonstrates it can live up to its own marketing. France offers a good test.


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