21717_isi_u-20s_usmntu20jd011817165 John Dorton/isiphotos.com
U.S. Men's U-20 Team

Young Yanks Begin World Cup Push on Saturday

Jeremy Ebobisse, Sebastian Saucedo, Erik-Palmer Brown and the rest of the United States under-20 team face Panama in the World Cup qualifying opener—a stern challenge with high stakes. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
February 17, 2017
5:10 PM

THINGS GET REAL for the United States U-20 men's national team Saturday afternoon as it squares off against Panama at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa in Tibas, Costa Rica (3:30pm ET, UDN, Facebook Live).

Panama is a soccer nation on the ascent: It finished 2nd in the 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Championships, winning all five of its group stage games—including a 1-0 win over the United States. The stakes are high on Saturday because both teams are favored to advance from Group B at the expense of St. Kitts and Nevis and Haiti.

The U.S.-Panama winner will dramatically increase its chances for a much easier path in the second group round. The second-place finisher could find itself in a second round group with two powerhouses: Mexico and Costa Rica.

Tab Ramos

“The last cycle Panama was the best team in the tournament and they happened to lose to Mexico on penalties in the final, but they were the best team," U.S. head coach Tab Ramos said. "We have a tough one to start. I’m not sure if they’re the best ones this time, but I know with the group they had the last time, this is going to be a very tough team for us to start the tournament with. Our approach, like I told the players here, is that we’re not going to get to the final here if we don’t win the first final."

Given the importance of the contest, expect Ramos to put forth a lineup that can create chances but also defend well.

If history is any indication, the U.S. will be in for a fight throughout the World Cup qualifying process. .

The games get chippy, officiating and field conditions are often subpar in Central America, and it's tough for U.S. teams to play the kind of soccer they want to play. The games are usually unpleasant to watch and the U.S. teams usually have to grind out results. Fans who follow youth soccer typically complain and are left feeling uneasy even from successful U-20 and U-17 World Cup qualifying campaigns.

But it is usually a pretty good mental test for the team to go to a hostile environment in rough condition and battle it out against less-talented but highly motivated teams. It's something these players have to learn.

Jeremy Ebobisse must finish

The most important player on this team is probably Jeremy Ebobisse. This U.S. U-20 team plays with a single forward and Ebobisse has emerged as the clear starter.

On Thursday Ramos said that he considered not bringing the second forward, Emanuel Sabbi, due to his rust from not being cleared to play with his club. Sabbi convinced Ramos only within the past two weeks to put him on the roster.

“Ebobisse has had a very good progression, a little bit at a time,” Ramos said. “He’s a very smart player who’s learning how to make runs and how to tip-toe along the center backs to find the right timing of his runs. He’s also working on his finishing, so he’s improving a little bit at a time.”

Ebobisse, selected by the Portland Timbers with the fourth overall pick in last month’s MLS draft, has put up great numbers for the U-20 team this past cycle but if he is off his game, the U.S. could be in trouble. On the other hand, an in-form Ebobisse could put the Yanks in a great position to qualify for the U-20 World Cup in South Korea.

Brooks Lennon

Strength is on the wings

This U-20 team is pretty strong technically on the wing positions—a rarity for a U.S. youth national team. Sebastian Saucedo, Jonathan Lewis, and Brooks Lennon are all adept wingers. Saucedo is probably the strongest technical American player on the roster and he has been moving back and forth between playing outside on the wing and in a more central position. Even if he plays on the wing, he will have a lot of freedom to create chances.

In order to create plays and be effective against Panama, the wingers must play up to their potential.

Will Palmer-Brown and Adams prosper?

Tyler Adams has been a standout since first making the U-20 team in December. The youngster could potentially pair in central midfield with team captain Erik Palmer-Brown (who is normally a central defender).

It would be a risky move for Ramos since Adams is one of the youngest players on the team and Palmer-Brown is unfamiliar with the position. There's also a chance it pays dividends given that the two are among the most talented players on the team. The good news is that if that if the two are successful, they will play in front of an experienced central defense tandem of Tommy Redding and Justen Glad—making the middle of the field very tough to navigate for opponents.

Can Klinsmann make the big save?

Even the most successful U-20 teams need goalkeepers to make big saves at important moments. In 2015, Zack Steffen’s important penalty save in the play-in game ensured the U.S. team made it to the World Cup.

Jonathan Klinsmann

This year, the team’s goalkeeper is Jonathan Klinsmann—the son of the recently fired national team coach and technical director. In 2014, Jonathan Klinsmann landed himself in hot water with American fans—and his own father—after posting a snide tweet about Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to leave Landon Donovan off the World Cup roster.

While Jonathan Klinsmann lacks the pedigree of many of the previous U-20 goalkeepers, he can prove his doubters and skeptics wrong if he can come up big when the opportunity comes—as it no doubt will in this tournament.

Predicted lineup

In a 4-2-3-1, I predict Ramos will go with this lineup:

Goalkeeper: Jonathan Klinsmann
Right back: Marlon Fossey
Central defender: Justen Glad
Central defender: Tommy Redding
Left back: Danny Acosta
Defensive midfielder: Erik Palmer-Brown
Central midfielder: Tyler Adams
Right wing: Sebastian Saucedo
Central attacking midfielder: Eryk Williamson
Left wing: Brooks Lennon
Central forward: Jeremy Ebobisse


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