The team stumbled early and struggled to generate much offense, but tactical adjustments and strong defense played saw the U.S. U-20s qualify for this summer's World Cup in Jamaica.
THE UNITED STATES U-20 MEN'S TEAM
January 27, 2015
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won't win any beauty prizes for its performance in the CONCACAF championship tournament in Jamaica. But Tab Ramos' team qualified for this summer's World Cup, and that was the top priority.
Ardent supporters know that the team started slowly and the offense didn’t create as many chances as expected, but there were strong points. Several players stepped up their game and carried the team across the finish line.
The team will now shift focus to the World Cup, and no doubt there is plenty of room for improvement. But here is a post-mortem on the team's showing in Jamaica.
CONCACAF IS A DIFFERENT BEAST
Whether at the youth levels or with the senior team, CONCACAF soccer is almost always an oddity that forces teams to make big adjustments. The field conditions were unbelievably poor in Jamaica, so much so that they favored teams that adopted a route one approach. Playing an attractive brand of soccer with the ball on the ground was nearly impossible on the choppy pitches.
Poor field conditions tend to serve as an equalizer since they neutralize skill. Instead long balls, set pieces, and physical play tend to be rewarded. As Cameron Carter-Vickers told me during the tournament: "I think the pitch being bad helps poorer teams become better. The game becomes more about physicality, about winning second balls, stuff like that. It’s different.”
You could see it in every game the U.S. played.
While it must have been a difficult decision for Ramos to switch from a 4-3-3 to the 4-4-2, it was a shrewd move. This tactical move required dropping a very talented attacker in Paul Arriola in favor of the athletic and physical forward combination of Bradford Jamieson IV and Ben Spencer. But that is what it takes to sometimes to win in this region.
Of course the U. S. should have done better in the first two games, but this could have been a valuable learning experience for these players if they make the transition to the full national team and have to play these type of games in the future.
The Defense should take a bow
While concern mounted over the U.S.'s inability to score in Jamaica, the defense deserves a ton of credit. Following the loss to Panama, the backline and goalkeepers did not allow a single goal over the remaining four games.
With the offense struggling, the defense carried the team. The central defense pairing of Cameron Carter-Vickers and Matt Miazga was a brick wall in Jamaica and the full backs did their job defensively. The only blemish was a conceded penalty against El Salvador, which Zach Steffen stopped.
The offense needs work but Ramos should feel pretty good about where the team stands defensively.
An MVP and an Unsung Hero
Following the first two games, Ramos replaced the injured Kellyn Acosta with Russell Canouse at defensive midfield. While Acosta was the team captain, Canouse stepped into the role very well and was a major reason why the team advanced. The Hoffenheim product did the dirty work that the position required. He helped shield the backline and he opened the game up for Emerson Hyndman
to move forward and create chances.
Canouse's strong showing could make it hard decision for Ramos to decide who gets the nod at the No. 6 position. Acosta is the team’s captain but his starting job might not be as secure as once thought.
Hyndman, however, has not only cemented himself as a starter on the team with a first-rate tournament, but he also proved to be its most indispensable player. Even when Rubio Rubin is likely added to the roster later this spring, Hyndman is the player who will open the game and create opportunities. Everything is going to flow through him.
There will be some turnover
The team that just qualified for the World Cup will not be completely identical to the team Ramos takes to New Zealand this summer. Some players will emerge late and others in Jamaica will lose form.
Here are players to watch in the coming months.
Rubio Rubin: The Utrecht forward is the best American player of his age group and was not released for World Cup qualifying. Unless Jurgen Klinsmann uses him for the full national team this summer at the Gold Cup, Rubin will be a huge addition to the U-20 team in New Zealand.
Erik Palmer-Brown: The talented central defender missed out on qualifying due to a foot injury. He should be healthy to start MLS preseason. Throughout most of the cycle, he was the team’s top central defender. But Miazga and Carter-Vickers performed very well in Jamaica so it will be hard to break up that pair. If Palmer-Brown, 17, replaces Miazga, does Ramos partner him with Carter-Vickers, who is also just 17? Either way, the central defense position for the 2017 cycle looks to be in remarkably strong hands with Tommy Redding, Justen Glad, and Danny Barbir also in the mix.
Zach Pfeffer: Another player who was not in Jamaica due to an injury. Despite a lack of regular first-team minutes with Philadelphia, Pfeffer performed well with the U-20s throughout most of the cycle. He will certainly be in contention for a spot in New Zealand.
Joel Sonora: The Boca Juniors midfielder was on the initial World Cup qualifying roster but was a late scratch due to an injury and was replaced by Ben Spencer. Ramos likes what Sonora has brought to the team with his playmaking and passing ability.
Mukwelle Akale: As what could be the best attacking player of the 2017 U.S. U-20 team, it is not completely out of the question that Akale gets moved up an age group to play with the 2015 U-20 team. He is a dynamic attacker that should improve now that he has joined Villarreal on a full-time basis.
Gedion Zelalem: By now everyone is aware of Zelalem acquiring his American passport and U.S. Soccer has submitted paperwork to FIFA for him to be eligible for the national team. If this clears, the Arsenal midfielder is age-eligible for the U-20s. If he is not with the full national team, he would be another major addition to the World Cup squad.
Desevio Payne: The Dutch-American right back was not given a look by Ramos in the first part of the U-20 cycle but that could change with Payne knocking on the door for first-team Eredivisie minutes with Groningen (he has already made the bench several times). If he does break into the first team, the South Carolina native will be hard to ignore.
Work to be done
Bad conditions or not, there is still plenty of work to be done for this U-20 team. Assuming that the team reverts back to its typical open style (which it abandoned in Jamaica), the attack needs to be more dynamic. Many of the team’s players are very similar in style: small, technical athletes who like to take on defenders off the dribble. The problem is that there is no apparent “Plan B” if that method of attack isn’t working.
This team will have to have many different ways to beat opponents in New Zealand where the competition will be better.
The good news for the U.S. team is that historically there is little correlation between performance in qualifying and performance at the World Cup. Success in New Zealand is still a very real possibility, but Ramos has his work cut out for him before May 30 rolls around.
Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.