Luis Gil and the United States U-20 squad prepare to take on the regional rivalry in the quarterfinal of the CONCACAF Championship. At stake: a berth at the youth level World Cup in Turkey.
February 26, 2013
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With a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica on Friday night, the United States U-20 Men’s national team emerged from the first round of the CONCACAF Championship as the winner of Group A. The victory set up a Tuesday evening match with the Group B runner-up, cross-border rival Canada. The winner earns a berth in Turkey for this summer’s U-20 World Cup.
With a five-goal outburst against Nicaragua on Friday, Canada enters the match in strong form. The recent rivalry is serving as extra motivation for an increasingly confident Canadian side. “I guess you could call it the ‘North American Classico.' It’s pretty much as big as it gets for us internationally,” said Canadian midfielder Ben Fisk.
U.S. coach Tab Ramos, however, is refusing to buy into the rivalry aspects of the fixture and is content to treat Canada as just another team to beat. “At this point, we’re just preparing for our next opponent and that’s it,” Ramos said. “It’s going to be a very tough game. They have skillful players, they’ve had the team together for a long time and they are a well-prepared, well-oiled machine.”
But a result for the Stars and Stripes would help ease the pain of some disappointing recent results. In 180 minutes of play, the senior Canadian team has held the U.S. scoreless under Jurgen Klinsmann. During Olympic qualifying the Canadians defeated the U-23 squad 2-0, an outcome that would help doom the American campaign. And earlier this year, the Canadian U-20’s came out victorious against the American during the Marbella Cup youth tournament in Spain.
However, that was then and this is now. The rosters have changed, the scene has shifted to Puebla, Mexico and the stakes are high.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE U.S.
In the U.S.’s first two group matches against Haiti and Costa Rica, Tab Ramos deployed two different formations with varying success. For a majority of the match against Haiti, the U-20s lined up in a 4-3-3, which featured Wil Trapp as the lone defensive midfielder. Although the U.S took an early lead, too much space was afforded to the athletic Haitians, who nearly made the U.S pay on several occasions. It wasn’t until Mikey Lopez was subbed on to partner with Trapp in front of the backline that the U.S. was able to stifle Les Grenadiers, holding them to limited chances late in the match.
On Friday against Costa Rica, Ramos began with two players in a defensive midfield role and it proved successful. The Ticos hardly threatened, as the U.S. held onto a majority of possession in the first half. However, Ramos strayed from this game plan after halftime, bringing on Mario Rodriguez for Trapp (who had received a yellow card), effectively switching back to a single defensive midfielder. Costa Rica promptly took advantage of the tactical switch, delivering their best chances of the night against the less defensive-oriented lineup.
Knowing that the U.S must win to advance to the World Cup, the U.S. coach will likely deploy his squad in a 4-2-3-1 formation at the onset. The mercurial Canadians, who looked lethargic in their loss to Cuba, came out on Friday and mercilessly battered Nicaragua, winning 5-1 and showing that they can be an offensive threat. Although the U.S is much more talented than the Central American side, providing enough defensive cover at the beginning on the match should steady the Americans, who will want to dictate the tempo as they did much of Friday night.
Don’t expect many roster surprises for Ramos heading into the match. The U.S. boss should go with a hybrid lineup of the best performers over the first two games. On the backline, right back is the only position in question: Haiti targeted Boyd Okwuonu frequently and he was responsible for the only goal scored against the squad so far in the tournament. Creighton defender Eric Miller, who received the start against Costa Rica, put in a workmanlike performance in his place, but looked a step slow and was ultimately replaced at halftime by Okwuonu.
In the midfield, Trapp's performance will be vital for the U.S. The Columbus Crew player was anonymous against Haiti and was subbed off at halftime against Costa Rica, narrowly avoiding a red card late in the first half after a couple of hard challenges. With Mikey Lopez suspended for yellow card accumulation, we could see Benji Joya or even Luis Gil working alongside Trapp in front of the back four.
Also unknown at this point is the status of Santos Laguna winger Daniel Cuevas, who did not play Friday after picking up a knock against Haiti. If Cuevas returns he will likely take the place of Daniel Garcia, who performed admirably in his place and could be an offensive option if the Yanks are chasing the game late. Up front, Jose Villarreal should be a focal point once again, with either Mario Rodriguez or Jerome Kieseswetter seeing time at center forward.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM CANADA
The Canadian U-20 roster is at the very least comparable to the U.S. squad in terms of professional experience. Boasting several players currently with European clubs and Canadian MLS academies, the squad’s quality was certainly on display in the victory over Nicaragua on Friday. Although they played against 10 men for the entire second half, the Canadians still dominated the proceedings from start to finish.
Canada opened scoring in the sixth minute when midfielder Samuel Piette netted a dazzling 25-yard strike off a free kick opportunity. Piette, Canada’s most experienced international, has put in a strong showing so far as a defensive midfielder in Canada’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. The 18 year old is an imposing defender and has penchant for long range strikes, scoring on a similar blast against the U.S in a 2-1 Canada victory earlier this year. Currently featuring in the youth ranks for Fortuna Dusseldorf in Germany, he should receive another start against the Yanks on Tuesday night and will certainly be the player to watch in the Canadian midfield.
The back line for Canada, heralded as the team’s strength coming into the tournament, was undone by Cuba in its first match before recovering nicely on Friday, allowing few chances and only conceding on a penalty call late in the first half. The unit is anchored by experienced defenders Doneil Henry, the U-20 Player of the Year who made 17 appearances last season for Toronto FC, and Daniel Stanese, a Canadian-American who recently signed with German club FC Nurnberg. While the attacking roster shifted liberally between the two matches, the defensive corps has remained a constant. One weak point, however, could be goalkeeper Maximo Crepeau, who has shown some shaky judgment in the opening matches but has not cost the Canadians as of yet.
The Vancouver Whitecaps attacking duo of Ben Fisk and Caleb Clarke have carried the Canadian U-20s offensively in the tournament. After not featuring in a 2-1 loss to Cuba, Clarke, a homegrown prospect for the MLS club, netted twice against Nicaragua and will likely start up top on Tuesday. The 6’1” forward is a physical presence in the box and a danger on set pieces, where he scored on two almost identical near-post runs.
Head coach and former Toronto FC boss Nick Dasovic was roundly criticized for his roster selections following the match with Cuba. He made several positive changes against Nicaragua, but it is unknown how he will approach the challenge of facing the U.S. The Canadian press characterizes Dasovic as an erratic manager with a hit-or-miss tactical acumen—someone whose job could very well be riding on Tuesday’s match. He knows his team are the underdog, but has nevertheless embraced the role of spoiler for the United States.
“The history with the Canadians and the Americans is that it is always one of the big battles,” Dasovic said. “Canada is maybe always considered the underdog. That’s not a bad thing and that is something we don’t mind carrying into the game with us.”
PROJECTED U.S. LINEUP
Cody Cropper; Juan Pablo Ocegueda, Shane O’Neill, Caleb Stanko, Boyd Okwuonu; Wil Trapp, Benji Joya; Daniel Cuevas, Luis Gil, Jose Villarreal; Mario Rodriguez
Josh Deaver is a former academic turned soccer obsessive. Follow him @USFootballGuy for daily updates.