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:
RAMOS GOT IT ALL WRONG
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:
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.
LACK OF CHANCE CREATION IS A TREND
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.
BACK LINE STANDS TALL
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.
LEDEZMA LOOKS CAPABLE OF REPLACING MENDEZ
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.