The path to the Round of 16 has gone from tricky to more than manageable. All thanks to a bounce-back performance in which there was plenty of progress and one major but necessary tactical adjustment.
Monday’s 2-0 win over Nigeria has the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team in good position to reach the knockout rounds of the U-20 World Cup. The Americans are currently in third place in Group D with three points, but a win over Qatar on Thursday should be more than enough to ensure a longer stay in Poland.
Here are some thoughts on the U.S. victory:
SOTO WAS JUST WHAT WAS NEEDED
Plenty of people will talk about the goals (and with good reason), but Sebastian Soto’s introduction to the lineup was about more than just bringing in a more traditional center forward.
Tab Ramos seemed to realize one of his mistakes from the 2-1 defeat to Ukraine, inserting Soto into the lineup in place of midfielder Brandon Servania and having him be the spearhead of the attack. The move helped put players like Tim Weah (on the wing) and Paxton Pomykal (at the 10) in their best positions, improving their chances to succeed and thus optimizing the Americans’ shot at pulling out the three points.
Neither Weah nor Pomykal were overly influential (Weah was pretty poor once again), but the group as a whole looked much more comfortable playing off a true No. 9. Part of that was because Nigeria played less organized and more open than Ukraine, but another part is because this possession-based U.S. team had a player up top capable of creating space for himself and others with his movement in the penalty area.
Soto’s second goal was an example of that. The young forward made a short diagonal run behind the shoulder of the unsuspecting Valentine Ozornwafor, and he was rewarded with a well-weighted pass that put him in on goal. The end result (though he got some help from some juvenile goalkeeping) was an insurance tally that killed Nigeria’s momentum.
If the Americans are going to have a shot at making a deep run in this tournament, Soto has to lead the front line.
FINAL BALL STILL LACKING
Soto’s 46th-minute strike may have come from some good passing and movement in the attacking third, but the Americans as a whole struggled once again with the end product.
For all the possession the U.S. had (finishing the game with 59%), it still did not manage to create an abundance of clear-cut chances. The Americans only managed to put a total of three shots on frame on the day against a Nigeria side that did not throw numbers behind the ball in the way swarming Ukraine did. What’s more, one of those goal-bound attempts on Monday, Soto’s headed opener, came off a set piece.
Mustering just two shots on target from the run of play when you have the ball that much is not a recipe for consistent success. Not unless your defense can play lights out, which the U.S. back line has not proven to this point.
The Americans need more from their wingers and attacking playmaker, especially from Weah. The 19-year-old speedster not only missed a golden chance to make it 2-0 in the first half, but he was also largely a non-factor for the second game running.
While more has to be expected of Weah, he is not the only one that needs to do better with his play in the final third. Konrad De La Fuente needs to learn to be more decisive and aggressive after creating space on the dribble, and Pomykal has to better mix up his range of passes and hit a few through balls in behind to test opposing back lines.
Do that and this American attack will have an added dimension, which will surely be needed against the tougher opponents in the tournament.
MENDEZ, DE LA FUENTE CONTINUE TO IMPRESS
There is no denying that Soto was the key figure in Monday’s victory, but the two U.S. players that have had the best showings through the first couple of World Cup games are De La Fuente and Alex Mendez.
While De La Fuente could certainly do better with his decision-making after creating some separation on the dribble (he tends to cut back or slow down too often), he has demonstrated over his 180 minutes that he is very willing to go at defenders. His qualities on the ball are why so many attacks went through him on Monday, as he routinely made himself available for the outlet pass before confidently testing the opposition with his craftiness and cleverness. The one first-half play where he rounded his mark on the dribble was filthy, and something not many other players in the pool can pull off.
Mendez, for his part, continues to be the most forward-thinking player in this group. He was at it again against Nigeria, taking turns (accurately) giving it a go from distance, spraying a range passes to teammates, and delivering pinpoint set pieces like the one that Soto nodded home.
The 18-year-old central midfielder needs to work on his positional awareness (he lost a ball in a dangerous spot late in the first half that could have led to a goal). He could also do a better job of chipping in defensively, too. That said, he is the biggest scoring threat from distance, a solid dead-ball specialist, and has impressive vision. His first-half through ball into space for Weah, for instance, was a thing of beauty and deserving of a better finish.
Don’t be surprised to see those two continue to excel vs. Qatar.