U.S. U-20 analysis
Breaking down the U.S. U-20's 1-0 World Cup opening win over Ecuador & a look towards Fiji
May 22, 2023
THE UNITED STATES U-20 national team delivered a dramatic 1-0 victory over Ecuador on Saturday in the team’s 2023 U-20 World Cup opener. The 90th minute goal from Jonathan Gomez gave the U.S. team three points and in the driver’s seat to possibly finish first atop Group B.
While the winner was not delivered until late, the U.S. team deserved the victory based on the balance of play. The U.S. team overall controlled possession by a 56-44 edge. The team had more shots (11-8) and more shots on target (5-0) than Ecuador.
But in the second minute of stoppage time, Gomez delivered this stunning winner to formally give the U.S. team all of the points.
Jonathan Gomez’s stunning winner. Assisted by Owen Wolff. Useful holdup play by Darren Yapi pic.twitter.com/fn3ofcp0Ob— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) May 20, 2023
A victory over Ecuador is just what the U.S. team needed as the team is heavily favored for its second game against Fiji on Tuesday. Head coach Mikey Varas will now be able to continue to rotate his squad with an eye towards the knockouts.
Here are some thoughts on the U.S. U-20 win.
Varas' decisions pay off
In naming the roster for this tournament and in naming his first starting lineup, Varas has taken a lot of chances, or calculated risks. Nearly everything has paid off well.
For one, the decision to go into the group stage shorthanded (keeping roster spots open for Rokas Pukstas and Kevin Paredes while knowing Cade Cowell was suspended for the opener) knowingly put the U.S. team in a tough position for the first game. This was enhanced due to Michael Halliday’s late arrival on Thursday night due to him being an injury replacement.
But if the U.S. team can handle Fiji, it will have six points from two games with the limited roster. Varas can now prepare for the reinforcements and rotate his squad accordingly. The risks will indeed have paid off. Varas could have gone with second choice players who would have been available from the start. But in taking the risk, he will be rewarded with top players soon.
But it wasn’t just electing to go with a shorthanded roster. Varas made other key decisions that worked.
For one, with Mauricio Cuevas injured and Halliday a late arrival, Varas could have gone with Che at right back and then loaded the left side with Caleb Wiley and Gomez. But Varas elected to put Gomez at right back – which is a position he very rarely plays. But this allowed Gomez to cut into the middle of the field with his stronger left foot. That is exactly why Gomez was able to score the goal – cutting into the middle from the right side for a left-footed volley.
There was also the decision to start youngster Obed Vargas in defensive midfield over team captain Daniel Edelman. Vargas, who is playing up a cycle, had a good game and even saved a goal in the second half when he intercepted a pass near the goal line that was likely to be easily tapped in.
Owen Wollf was also fading in the second half and looked to be an option to be subbed out. But Wolff remained in the game and assisted on Gomez’s winner with a well-hit cross field pass.
The defensive formation with Joshua Wynder, Brandan Craig, and Justin Che was something that the U.S. team has not used much this cycle but Varas rolled with it in the World Cup opener and it accomplished its two main goals – it got the fullbacks further up the field, and it kept a clean sheet.
No major weaknesses
If there was one big takeaway from the U.S. team’s opening game, it’s that no one played poorly. Some players did better than others, but no one had a bad game.
Gomez was the obvious man of the match. It wasn’t just his goal, he had a solid and complete game. Defensively, he tracked back. Offensively, he pushed the ball into the final third.
Vargas was impressive for his World Cup opener despite playing up a cycle and missing the second half of 2022 with a back injury. This is where some of the big game experience he has acquired in Seattle has helped him at such a young age. Last May, he played meaningful minutes for Seattle in winning the CONCACAF Champions League at just 16 years old.
In an interview with ASN in March, Varas said he believes Vargas has a future with the full national team. Who knows when he will be ready to make that jump, but you can see why it is reasonable to think that at some point in the future, he will be able to make that jump.
Caleb Wiley was better in the second half. He is one of the most intriguing prospects on this team and likely to be the most heavily scouted U.S. players in Argentina. He didn’t have a great game against Ecuador but he was good enough to be effective. Ecuador had to pay a lot of attention to him on the left side and a quicker shot on his play in the second half where he moved in alone on the keeper should have resulted in a goal.
One of the most interesting players for the U.S. team on the day was Diego Luna. The Real Salt Lake playmaker was clearly a handful for Ecuador. He worked hard to win balls, create danger, and to just be a menace to the South American opponents.
But Luna sometimes missed clear passes with his head down, he overdribbled in the attacking third, and he should have been able to finish at least one of his three golden opportunities. He’s an “X-factor” type of player. It’s not always perfect, but it really is useful when a player can fluster the opponents like Luna. He was a big role of taking Ecuador out of their rhythm and away from their gameplan.
With Cade Cowell returning against Fiji and Paredes returning after the group stages, it might be tough for Luna to start. But he’s going to continue to be a useful option for Varas in Argentina.
Another big takeaway from this game is that the midfield was extremely proactive in this game. From the opening whistle, the U.S. team did not seem content to merely have the ball and pass it around. The midfield was always looking to play it forward and make attacking passes as quickly as possible. Ecuador seemed a little surprised.
Vargas played well. Jack McGlynn did at times and Wolff was there at the end. It was the type of outing where if you are doing match ratings, none of them score very high individually, but as a unit they were effective and controlled the game.
The Yapi effect
The final point from this game is on Darren Yapi who entered the game in the 65th minute for the U.S. team. What Yapi does is provide the U.S. team with a completely different look. Throughout most of the cycle, Varas has opted not to use a No. 9 because he hasn’t been satisfied with his options. Instead, he has gone with a “false No. 9” approach. Yapi emerged in 2023 with a strong preseason with Colorado and was a late inclusion into this roster.
He has an important role. When he came into this game, the feel of the U.S. team’s attack changed. Having a big, athletic, and strong presence up top threw Ecuador off. Yapi was far from perfect. He had some heavy touches and some loose passes, but he helped create openings for his teammates. His hold-up play on the goal was critical.
It remains to be seen if Varas is comfortable with Yapi starting big games. But Yapi could very well be an important bench option whenever Varas wants to change the team’s attack and throw the opponent’s defense off.
Fiji on Tuesday
The U.S. will return to the field on Tuesday to take on Fiji. Fiji is considered one of the minnows of the tournament and lost its opener to Slovakia 4-0 (Fiji was lucky the score was not much worse).
Varas will probably look to rotate the squad as much as possible and he will have two more options at his disposal with Cowell’s suspension over and Halliday now settled in Argentina.
In central defense, keeping Wynder in the starting lineup makes sense since he picked up a yellow card against Ecuador and resting him (or having him suspended should he pick up a subsequent yellow against Fiji) against Slovakia makes sense to keep him eligible for the round of 16. Markus Fekranus will probably be useful to rotate into the team in the back. On the fullbacks, Varas will have to make choices and it might involve keeping one of the starters vs. Ecuador – although Halliday starting on the right makes sense.
In the midfield, Tsakiris and Edelman should be rested and ready to go although Varas will have to likely fill out the midfield with one of the starters against Ecuador.
Up top, Yapi could be useful in this game and shouldn’t be too tired. Cowell seems like a safe bet to start while continuing to keep Luna in the team could bring an element Fiji can’t handle.
The U.S. team needs to press Fiji hard and the pressure could take them out of their gameplan. They don’t have the skill to play through a tough press and will likely either turn it over or boot it long. From there, the U.S. team will need to win aerials and get the ball forward to keep Fiji on their back foot.
As always, the key against a minnow is to score early to crush any hope of an upset. If the U.S. does that, they should be heading into the Slovakia game with six points.