A gritty win in tough conditions in Jamaica saw the USMNT U-20 team clinch a spot in the U-20 World Cup this summer in New Zealand as goals from Ben Spencer and Paul Arriola combined with a huge PK save from Zack Steffen helped lock up a spot for the Young Yanks. The team now waits to see how their group shapes up at the official World Cup draw February 10th.
It was a game that the US dominated throughout, but they struggled to deal with poor field conditions that helped keep El Salvador in the game. Ben Spencer broke the deadlock after multiple dangerous chances for the US when he headed Emerson Hyndman’s free kick off of the crossbar, then coolly headed his rebound into the empty net in the 37th minute. Steffen then made the play of the tournament for the US, saving the El Salvador penalty kick after a handball in the box in the 52nd minute. Steffen’s full extension dive to his right helped the US maintain their shutout and keep the momentum in a critical spot. Arriola put the game away in the 68th when his shot took a fortuitous bounce off an El Salvador defender and trickled in. This sealed the spot in New Zealand, albeit a much more difficult route than expected for the US.
Some brief thoughts on the tournament as a whole:
Impressive rally from the US. They struggled in their first two games and missing the U-20 World Cup seemed like a possibility, however they got it together and won four games in a row, not giving up a goal in that span. The fields in Jamaica were poor at best, and it was evident that this was wreaking havoc on the style the US likes to play. In their final match, Hyndman threaded Romain Gall a flawless throughball, and as Gall moved in by himself on goal, the ball skipped up on him, leading to a mistouch that went directly to the El Salvador keeper. This happened often during the tournament, which was tough on this collection of players who like to move the ball on the ground and use their skills to create opportunities. Instead they had to gut out some goals and were able to overcome the shitty fields. The refereeing was not much better than the fields were, however the US managed to avoid any big mistakes that put them down a player, and even when they gave up a PK, Steffen clutched up and made a massive save.
This defense is quite skilled, and has a very promising future. They gave up 2 goals over 6 games, one of which was a thunderous volley in the 92nd minute of a match where the defense had no chance. Cameron Carter-Vickers and Matt Miazga jelled quite well together as a centerback pairing, and both were critical to the impressive performance of the defense. Shaquell Moore and John Requejo Jr. played well outside, and likely would have contributed more to the attack if the conditions were better. Russell Canouse was steady in front of them, filling in for an injured Kellyn Acosta both in the defensive midfield role and as team captain. Steffen was not called on to make a lot of saves throughout the tournament, and was partially at fault for the goal that Panama scored, but he came up incredibly big with his penalty kick save to keep the US ahead and avoid another shocking result against El Salvador like the match that knocked the US out of Olympic Qualifying in 2012. The attack has been what has carried this U-20 team in the last year, but it was the defense that really excelled in qualification and made sure they locked up a spot in the U-20 World Cup.
The 4-4-2 with Bradford Jamieson IV and Ben Spencer up top didn’t look or feel like the right formation with Gall and Tommy Thompson behind them in the outside midfield. Jamieson and Spencer are players that seem to do best when they have service from wide positions, however both Gall and Thompson are not really midfielders who get down the wing and play in crosses. Both are creative players who like to take guys on and dribble, and it seemed that Jamieson and Spencer were in the way of many of these runs instead of able to work off of them/open space for Gall and Thompson. Certainly the field conditions didn’t help, but Jamieson seemed much more comfortable when Junior Flores and Paul Arriola were in the game as subs creating more chances on the counter and cutting balls back across into the box that Jamieson attempted to finish. It will be interesting to see how the lineup shifts come early June as Rubio Rubin, Gedion Zelalem, and Erik Palmer-Brown could all be part of the squad that takes the field in New Zealand.
Emerson Hyndman was the US player of the tournament for me. His work in the midfield was phenomenal, and he was dangerous getting forward while breaking up attacks defensively in the middle. He took most of the free kicks and corner kicks, and had multiple assists via these set pieces. His vision in the midfield was tremendous, and it’s clear his development has ramped up at Fulham where he has been making regular first team appearances this season. He looked to be the most complete player on the pitch for the USMNT, and his performance at the U-20 World Cup will be very important to how the team fares.
The biggest question that faces Tab Ramos is how does he best utilize the impressive talent that he has to work with this summer. Guys like Carter-Vickers and Moore established themselves in the back, but how will the front six look as multiple talented players like Rubin and Acosta join the squad or recover from injury? Will we see a shift back to the 4-3-3, a move to the 4-2-3-1, or will the 4-4-2 stick? Will any young MLS players make a name for themselves in the next five months and force their way on to the team? It should be a very exciting U-20 World Cup for the US as they will bring possibly the most talented and deep squad they have ever had for a U-20 World Cup to New Zealand.