U.S. U-20 analysis
Analysis: U.S. flexes muscle at the U-20 World Cup, but finishing questions remain
May 24, 2023
THE UNITED STATES U-20 team is sitting exactly where they want to be sitting heading into Friday’s Group B finale against Slovakia. The team currently has six points from two games, is yet to conceded, and only needs a draw against Slovakia to win the group.
It hasn’t been completely perfect for head coach Mikey Varas. The U.S. team didn’t enjoy a stress-free lopsided win over Fiji that it hoped and instead had to take time to break down the Oceania opponent en route to a 3-0 win with goals from Diego Luna, Cade Cowell, and Caleb Wiley.
So ahead of Friday’s game, here are some thoughts on what the team has done so far, and what it will have to do in the coming games.
Fiji win was okay
The Fiji game was frustrating for the U.S. team. The U.S. team had a significant edge in talent and many fans were hoping for a lopsided win from the start. That never came and the U.S. team didn’t find the back of the net until the 66th minute when substitute Luna scored from inside the box.
The result was more stressful than fans were hoping but the performance overall was better than the scoreline suggested. For the U.S. team, the chances were there. It would be more alarming if the chances were never there – but they were early in the first half, in droves.
If the U.S. team puts just one of those many very good chances away early, it’s a different game and the dam likely starts to break. Instead, the U.S. team did what you don’t want to do with a minnow – give them hope and a reason to believe in themselves for awhile.
But at no point did the U.S. team play down to Fiji’s level either. The U.S. was always on the front foot. While it might have been disappointing not to run up the score, it’s certainly not rare to see a completely dominant performance look closer in the final score.
Putting aside the result, the performance wasn’t the worst bad across the board. They put themselves in good position to at least put this thing away early. The team passed the ball well and Fiji rarely had possession deep in the U.S. half. But, yes, finishing let them down for 66 minutes but that's also not a failure on multiple fronts - it's just a disappointment in one front, finishing.
Finishing is the key
The key story for the U.S. team right now is finishing. Not just against Ecuador, but the U.S. team also struggled against Ecuador to put away good chances. It’s tough, but it is understandable why.
The U.S. team is essentially playing for the first time this tournament without its best player in Paxten Aaronson who scored or created a ton of goals. The team is also without the player who would likely be the best backup for Aaronson in Brian Gutierrez.
On top of that, this comes at a time when the team hasn’t been able to get going with a No. 9 all cycle but now, considering their top “false No. 9” option missing, are simply hoping Darren Yapi steps up in the No. 90.
Overall, Mikey Varas is trying to rebuild the attack – both in different personnel and in a different system – at the World Cup. Thus far, it’s been going well enough o get the results.
The question is whether or not the team figures things out and gains steam at the end of the group stage, and into the knockout.
Squad rotation issues
In the final group stage game, Varas is going to have to prioritize getting a result and managing players for the knockouts. That involves resting or limiting the minutes for some players as well as taking into consideration the card accumulation issues to avoid suspensions in he knockouts.
Consider that six players have started the first two games: Gaga Slonina, Brandan Craig, Jonathan Gomez, Jack McGlynn, Quinn Sullivan, and Owen Wolff.
To break that down even further: McGlynn, Craig, & Gomez are field players who have played all 180 minutes so far. Josh Wynder, McGlynn, and Luna yellows.
It seems like McGlynn is the player who most needs to be protected and to not play against Slovakia. As a clear starter, he needs to rest, and he needs to avoid a yellow card. Gomez seems very unlikely to start against Slovakia given that he’s played every minute so far and has taken a physical beating in both games. But Gomez could potentially be a bench option.
Craig has been a top defender so far and Varas is probably going to want him to be available at 100% in the knockout rounds since he is probably unsure of the two other central defenders. Again, he seems like an option off the bench. If Varas was so concerned about Wynder’s yellow cards situation, he probably would have started him against Fiji and then worried about protecting him in the group stage finale.
Luna is an interesting case. He’s been a true sparkplug for the team so far and he is on a yellow. He seems more likely to be a substitute off the bench against Slovakia in case the team needs offense late.
Slovakia is going to be a tricky opponent for the United States. While Varas is likely keeping an eye on the knockout rounds in how he approaches this game, Slovakia is going to be desperate. The team is sitting on just three points and were mostly outplayed by Ecuador on Tuesday. A loss could very likely eliminate them from the knockouts, but a win could see them winning the group. Slovakia is likely to field the best lineup possible.
But Slovakia was clearly a step behind Ecuador in their 2-1 loss on Tuesday. But the U-20 World Cup has always been a tough tournament to gauge as teams can be inconsistent and Ecuador was likely heavily motivated after their loss to the U.S. team in the opening game.
The U.S. team should be expecting their toughest game of the group stage. So how will Mikey Varas approach the game?
The best bet is that Varas continues with his 4-3-3 as opposed to the three-man backline in the opener (where he was without Cade Cowell and Michael Halliday in addition to the two opens spots for Kevin Paredes and Rokas Pukstas). But with the need to rest Craig and Gomez, a back four of Wiley on the left, Che on the right, with Wynder and Markus Fekranus makes sense.
Varas has options in the midfield. Obed Vargas and Daniel Edelman will go at the No. 6 with the edge likely favoring Edelman as he’s the captain. It’s unlikely that McGlynn plays in this game. That should open the door for Niko Tsakiris to start his first game of the tournament. Owen Wolff probably gets the nod for the third time in the group stage but could be replaced when Pukstas arrives for the knockouts.
The attack of Sullivan, Yapi, and Cowell seems like the most likely option. None of the players are playing on a yellow, which would protect Luna a little by keeping him on the bench as a sub.
In the U-20 World Cup, games are played in quick succession. Teams that can secure passage to the knockouts are in better position by being able to rotate to conserve energy. Varas is going to have to multitask but he’s in the position to have is right team rested for the knockouts.