Under-20 World Cup
Battered U.S. U20 Team to Face a Strong, Skilled Serbia
June 12, 2015
HISTORICALLY MERCURIAL, the Serbian under-20 men’s national team either make deep runs in European competition—including a win at the 2013 U-19 European Championships—or watch from the couch. Beginning in 2008, Serbia has made it all the way to the U-19 Euro semifinals (2009, 2011, 2014) as many times as it failed to qualify for the actual tournament (2008, 2010, 2015).
Being only one of three teams to remain undefeated through the two initial rounds of qualification (joining Portugal and eventual champions Germany), the Serbs defeated Austria, Kazakhstan, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, and Bulgaria. The team also tied Ukraine, Turkey, and Germany en route to a scoreless, penalty shootout loss to Portugal in the semifinals last July.
Yeah—this is a very good team.
On the back of a nine-match unbeaten qualifying campaign, the Young Eagles earned only its third appearance at the under-20 World Cup, the last coming when it won the then-named FIFA Youth Championship in 1987 under the flag of Yugoslavia. Upon arrival in New Zealand, the squad unceremoniously dropped its first group match to Uruguay, a gritty 1-0 loss. Not to be deterred, the team followed up that disappointment with a pair of 2-0 wins against fellow quarterfinalists Mali and Mexico.
Despite the professional performances, the squad needed a bit of fortune to escape the Round of 16. On the brink of elimination at the hands of surprise upstart Hungary, which led 1-0 after a 57th minute goal, the Serbians scored on a set piece equalizer seconds into stoppage time before snatching victory on a heart-breaking and absolutely devastating Hungarian own goal in extra time.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM SERBIA
Head coach and former European journeyman—also, ex-Philadelphia Union signee—Velkjo Paunovic returns 11 of the 18 players who participated in the European championships. The team features a number of foreign-based standouts in Milos Veljkovic (Charlton Athletic via Tottenham) and Filip Jankovic (Catania via Parma) while Gent’s Sergey Milinkovic-Savic returns to the team after missing qualifying. Surprisingly, Paunovic also dropped Velkjo Simic from the lineup, the teams’ most capped player (15) and leading scorer (eight goals) throughout qualifying.
Paunovic’s team has looked like a physically dominant side to start the tournament and would probably be undefeated had it not been for a super human effort from the Uruguayan goalkeeper. However, this team is far from a one-trick pony. With the ability to kill you two ways—in the air and on the ground—Serbia remains a very technical group but with the distinct ability, like the United States, to simply outmuscle its opposition. To that end, four of the team’s five goals so far have originated from set pieces.
Disciplined as a group, the team features several dangerous individuals.
The aforementioned Milinkovic-Savic—three goals in qualifying—has looked especially sharp. Deployed as an attacking midfielder, the 20-year-old scored on a fantastic free kick against Mali. Midfielder Andrija Zivkovic scored on an equally well-struck effort against Mexico. He joins the squad after a breakout campaign with domestic champions Partizan, where he became the club’s youngest-ever captain, scoring five goals in 24 appearances. Zivkovic is also the youngest player ever capped by the full Serbian national team.
Joining the pair up front is Namanja Maksimovic, the team’s most-capped player, who along with Milinkovic-Savic is one of only three members of the roster to have also played a part in the 2013 U19 European Championship run.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM The U.S.
Maki Tall is out. And Bradford Jamieson is out. This is a problem.
With two of Tab Ramos’ four forward options out of commission, the U.S coach will be forced to reconfigure on the fly ahead of Sunday’s quarterfinal. With no big target to find, the Americans will need to improve their passing and possession if they hope to have enough opportunities to get past Serbian keeper Pedrag Rajkovic, who has only conceded twice in seven matches this year. Emerson Hyndman and Gedion Zelalem will no doubt retain their spots in the starting XI, which could see Paul Arriola and Tommy Thompson placed on the wings in support of Rubio Rubin up top: a 4-1-4-1 lineup.
Another problem: the Americans have a nasty habit of inefficient possession early in matches.
If it's nerves, the team must settle on the ball early. Knock it around the back if you have to. Serbia is going to hammer in crosses from wide positions and look to break on counter attacks. The U.S. back four has been strong, but is not without moments of vulnerability. If that quartet is made to chase, it’s only a matter of time before a mistake is made.
And at this level, the margin for error becomes razor-thin.
Group opponent Ukraine is a good physical and technical comparison in this regard. Against the Ukrainians, there was far too much chasing against a physically comparable opponent—leading to a stretched back line, hopeful long balls, and an emphatic loss. The last thing the Americans want to count on is a long-ball, knock-down contest with the Serbs. It won't work.
American fortunes will hinge on their ability to create and exploit space in the midfield. Against Ukraine and Colombia, both Hyndman and Zelalem were marked close and effectively taken out of the match.
Did I mention that Kellyn Acosta is also out?
After picking up a red card late against Colombia, the absence of the FC Dallas midfielder/emergency left back will leave Ramos with a couple of roster questions. First, it almost assures that Marky Delgado will reprise his role as a deep-lying central midfielder. Delgado has drawn criticism in the early matches, but responded well against Colombia. He’ll have to keep it up.
Second, Ramos must make a choice on his outside back spots. Desevio Payne has been a revelation, so the question should probably read: What is Payne's preferred position and who has earned the start on the other side—John Requejo or Shaq Moore?
A win early Sunday (kick off 12:30 EST on Fox Sports 1) would put the Americans into the U-20 World Cup semifinal round for the first time since 1989.
Zack Steffen; Requejo, Matt Miazga, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Payne; Zelalem, Delgado; Hyndman, Thompson; Arriola, Rubin
The injury/suspension bug catches up with the Americans, the Serbs control the midfield, and the Young Eagles win a close one, 2-1.
ASN Contributing Editor Josh Deaver is a former academic turned soccer obsessive. Follow him on Twitter.