The Kids Are Alright

Ramos Leads U-20s to the CONCACAF Championship

The Americans are looking to qualify for their first youth level World Cup in some time. Josh Deaver examines the squad that will contest the CONCACAF Championship starting Monday night.
BY Josh Deaver Posted
February 18, 2013
2:21 PM
With Jurgen Klinsmann and company out of action until mid-March, focus for U.S. Soccer now turns towards the U-20 squad. Hoping to avenge the failed 2011 World Cup qualifying campaign, head coach Tab Ramos has assembled an experienced and versatile roster ready to do battle in CONCACAF.

After a long year of preparation, eight training camps and 72 players later, the U.S Men’s U-20 national team is finally ready to begin their World Cup qualification campaign. Already assembled in Puebla, Mexico, the squad is currently in their final week of training before the U-20 CONCACAF Championship kicks off on February 18.

Drawn into Group A with Costa Rica and Haiti, the U.S. must maneuver through a difficult and compact tournament, which could feature as many as five games in 12 days. In order to punch their ticket to Turkey for July’s World Cup, the U.S. must advance to at least the semifinals, which will require finishing top two in the group stage and winning their first match of the knockout round.

However, the treacherous waters of CONCACAF competition have proven to be anything but a cakewalk for the U.S. In 2011, the squad rolled through the group stage, soundly defeating Suriname and Panama before being eliminated at the hands of Guatemala, failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1995.

Ramos, however, does not believe that the 2011 failure should put any undue pressure his squad. “I don’t feel like we need to carry that responsibility,” Ramos said in a conference call last week. “Certainly we need a good result. We would need this team to do well. But there’s no added responsibility with this particular group.”

Recently demonstrated by the U.S. Men’s national team against Honduras—as if they needed any more reminders—there are no free points in CONCACAF. Members of Tab Ramos’s squad know that they will need to bring their best effort in order to make it through.

“I feel like we’re ready as a team, we’ve got our core guys, we’ve just got to take a step forward and take everything seriously,” said Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil.

Anchored by roster mainstays like Luis Gil, Southampton goalkeeper Cody Cropper and Santos Laguna pair Benji Joya and Daniel Cuevas, the U.S. squad has big ambitions for 2013. However, carving a path through such a taxing tournament will not be easy. Before the action begins on Monday, let’s examine the U.S. roster and what we could expect from their Group A opponents.


Dilapidated Defense
Primarily due to injury the U.S. defensive corps is far from a full-strength rotation. Former captain Will Packwood is out indefinitely with a broken leg, John Anthony Brooks is currently unavailable due to club commitments, and recent FC Dallas draft pick center back Walker Zimmerman is recovering from a groin injury and will also be unavailable.

In what has become a trend for U.S. Soccer, some shuffling along the backline will be required. As a result, Colorado Rapids homegrown product Shane O’Neill, impressing as a late addition to the player pool, should see significant time at the center of defense, possibly paired with LA Galaxy prospect Jevan Torre. The two started alongside each other, each playing 90 minutes, in two recent friendlies against Panama.

Despite concerns in the middle, the U.S. defense will feature the experienced outside duo of University of North Carolina’s Boyd Okwuonu and recent Chivas signee Juan Pablo Ocegueda. The two defenders have been a steady presence during this cycle, averaging the most minutes on the squad, while being only two of three players called in for every camp under Ramos. Although Okwuonu can also be used at center back, he will likely see time on the right side over Creighton defender Eric Miller.

Colorado Rapids rookie Dillon Serna, a late addition to the roster, is another versatile option and could be used as a utility player during the tournament. While listed as a midfielder, Serna has been frequently deployed in a defensive role for Ramos and may be used as a backup to Ocegueda on the left if needed.

Midfield Maestros
Regardless of their defensive issues, the U.S. does boast a talented crop of midfielders capable of playing in Ramos’ possession-based system. With a roster that features Gil, Caleb Stanko, Mikey Lopez, Benji Joya, Wil Trapp, and Serna, Ramos has a plethora of versatile and viable options that “are not afraid to have the ball at their feet when it really matters.”

The U.S. coach specifically praised midfield anchor Stanko, who has risen rapidly in the youth ranks for Freiburg and is now a regular starter for the club’s reserve side in the German fourth division. Serving as captain for this tournament, Stanko emerged as a leader for the team in 2012, someone whose versatility makes him indispensable for the U-20’s.

“He leads by example with the rest of the guys and his game has improved immensely,” Ramos said. “He’s one of those players who’s open to playing wherever the coach wants to put him. I think he’s done well for us at the center back position the few times we’ve had him in there. That’s certainly a possibility going into next week.”

If Stanko does drop into the back four, Columbus Crew homegrown talent Wil Trapp would likely assume his role as the starting defensive midfielder. The capable trio of Gil, Lopez, and Joya, along with Serna, would then be left to rotate at the remaining midfield positions.

One noticeable absence from the U.S. midfield is Marc Pelosi. Initially withheld from the roster by Liverpool, with news on Sunday that the U-21 prospect has since suffered a broken leg, the midfield selections for the U-20 Championship take on increased importance. With Pelosi out indefinitely, suffering a similar injury that has defender Packwood sidelined, the options Ramos has chosen for Puebla should make up the core of the U.S. first choice midfielders moving towards the World Cup.

Attacking Arsenal
Speaking on Friday, Tab Ramos sounded most confident when discussing his attacking options, going so far as to signal out players he believes could soon receive time for the senior U.S national team; among them Mario Rodriguez, Jose Villarreal, Cuevas and Joya. "I think we have very good players here and in particular on the offensive side of the ball," Ramos said. "They make you feel they're ready for the next level,” adding, “We’ve selected players who… will be valuable down the road.”

Those are bold words, but all four have consistently underlined their potential with strong performances over the past year. Since February 2012, Rodriguez, Cuevas, Villarreal, and Joya have been responsible for 16 of the 22 goals scored by the U-20’s. Last Sunday, in a pre-tournament friendly against Jamaica, Joya and Villarreal netted once again in a 2-1 victory.

Ramos was also full of praise for Georgetown University freshman Brandon Allen, who, along with Daniel Garcia and Jerome Kieseswetter, round out the list of attacking options at his disposal. “He’s always been scoring goals,” Ramos said of Allen. “Even though he’s practically new to our group… we felt [he] could give us something at different times that we needed.”

Up front, Ramos has experimented with personnel, but his preference towards a 4-3-3 has been constant. If recent matches are any indication expect the Yanks to ride the hot hand, deploying three strikers up front, with Joya acting as an attacking midfielder or cutting in along the wing.

Cropper; Ocegueda, Stanko, O’Neill, Okwuonu; Trapp, Gil, Joya; Villarreal, Rodriguez, Cuevas


v. Haiti:
Since beginning their qualification campaign in July, Les Grenadiers have gone unbeaten in six consecutive matches, earning their first berth to the CONCACAF Championship since 2007. Fielding a side which contains mostly domestic players, Haiti has already overachieved and will have nothing to lose when taking on the U.S. and Costa Rica in group play.

In an interview with local media, Haitian captain Saint Louis Jude recognized the chance to play against the U.S. as a huge opportunity for the nation. “The game allows the Haitian people to be lifted up through the competition,” the young defender said. “We are going to fight and do everything possible to come back with the [victory].”

The danger men for Haiti will likely be the attacking duo of Chery Johnley and James Jean-Francois. Johnley has been nothing short of spectacular during his time representing Haiti; registering 10 goals in nine matches for the U-17 and U-20 age levels, including three in five appearances during qualification. Francois, representing one of Haiti’s five non-domestic players, currently plays in the youth setup for French outfit Le Mans. Fast and skilled on the ball, the 19-year old featured prominently for the squad in 2012.

Although little is available in terms of a scouting report for the side, look for Haiti to play a fast-paced attacking style. In recent matches, they have deployed three defenders and a five-man midfield, which allows plenty of opportunity for a well-timed counterattack utilizing their speedy and athletic forwards. The Haitians have also excelled as a solid defense unit, picking up 14 of a possible 18 points while outscoring their opponents 10-2 during qualification. If they can remain disciplined and make spaces tight for the U.S., the Haitians may have a chance of stealing a point from the Americans.

Ramos, for one, isn’t taking Les Grenadiers lightly. “Haiti is a very athletic team,” he said last week. “They’re a very strong right-sided team where they go forward pretty well. They have, for years, had skillful players. This time around they have a good combination of skillful players that can cover a lot of ground. There’s no question that Haiti will make things difficult for us.”

v. Costa Rica
For this competition, the Ticos are entering the fray with a very small sample size, having played few friendlies and only two meaningful international matches in 2012. During UNCAF qualifying in July, Costa Rica needed only a victory against Nicaragua and to see out a scoreless draw against Honduras in order to advance to the tournament.

In an attempt to regain team cohesion, the Ticos recently organized friendlies against El Salvador, Canada, and two domestic clubs, but they were defeated in three of the four matches. While poor form can be attributed to infrequent training camps and lack of chemistry, Costa Rica has traditionally been a strong U-20 side, finishing 4th in the 2009 World Cup and performing well in 2011.

A majority of the Costa Rican squad feature for the domestic league, but there are a few standout players that will be of concern for U.S fans. Recent River Plate singing Gabriel Leiva will attempt to boss the proceedings in the midfield. Formerly the captain for the U-17s, Leiva is traditionally deployed as a deep-lying defensive midfielder, but is also skilled enough on the ball to drive the attack when needed.

Up top, the Ticos attack is squarely focused around forward John Jairo Ruiz. Serving as captain, Ruiz is by far the squad’s most experienced professional player. Currently on loan from France’s Lille OSC to Belgian second division side Royal Mouscron-Péruwelz, Ruiz quickly earned a spot in the starting XI, scoring seven goals in 17 league appearances this season. In 2011, Ruiz took home the Golden Boot for the U-17 CONCACAF Championship, before being drafted to the Costa Rican U-20 side, where he scored three goals in four matches during the 2011 World Cup.

Although it is unclear what specific game plan Costa Rica may implement in the group stage, they will be looking to establish themselves early in the competition. In recent interviews, Soto has mentioned both the need for “definition” in the attack and limiting wide play of the Americans as essential to their game plan. To shut down the American attack, the Ticos will rely on some of their promising defensive talent including American-based defender William Alban Fernandez and center back Erick Cabalceta of Catania, who has impressed for the Italian club.

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: There are no free points in CONCACAF. Given recent U.S. youth team performances, fans should be hesitant to write off Haiti and Costa Rica so easily. Riding a period of good form, Haiti are fast, skilled and have an undeniable “us against the world” mentality that could surprise some teams if not taken seriously. Costa Rica, on the other hand, is a legitimately talented side. With high caliber players at every position, the U.S. will be required to play alert to ensure that their defensive unit is not caught out by a dynamic Tico attack.

If the U.S. hopes to avenge the disastrous 2011 U-20 campaign, they will need to come out on February 18 with a sense of urgency to take three points from the motivated Haitians in their first match. In this arduous tournament, one slip-up could mean another massive failure for U.S. youth.

This truth is not lost on Ramos, who still has lingering concerns about his squad. “It’s difficult because they haven’t experienced this,” he said. “My main concern is how we’re going to react to the actual games, maybe in difficult situations. Every game that goes by, there are times where you need to weather the storm, there are times where the other team is playing better than you are and how we react to those situations is going to be key for us in this tournament.”

At first glance, the U.S. is the clear favorite in Group A, but we’ve heard that before. The U-20’s must take this opportunity to prove that they are not just a paper tiger.

Josh Deaver is a former academic turned soccer obsessive. Follow him @USFootballGuy for daily updates.

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