The U.S. U-20 team won ugly against Qatar but still found a way through to the knockout stages. ASN’s Brian Sciaretta breaks it down.
May 30, 2019
THE UNITED STATES defeated Qatar 1-0 on Thursday to seal second place in Group D of the 2019 U-20 World Cup and book a spot in the Round of 16 where it will face either France or Mali on June 4.
The game was hardly pretty and far from ideal. In fact the U.S. team struggled badly at times in the first half but gradually settled down in the second half before Tm Weah delivered a great goal in the 76th minute to give the U.S. team a lead it would not relinquish.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 30, 2019
The U.S. team had more chances in the second half and should have won by more. Richard Ledezma hit a shot off the cross bar, Alex Mendez had a penalty saved, and Weah had a close-range shot saved when he moved in a lone on the keeper. But the one goal stood.
Here are some thoughts on the win
Awkward starting lineup
Ramos made two puzzling decisions in his starting lineup. The first was to play central defender Mark McKenzie at right back despite having two healthy right backs on the bench in Sergino Dest and Julian Araujo.
The second was to rest the sturdy Paxton Pomykal and go with Chris Durkin and Brandon Servania in central midfield behind the more typically attack-minded Alex Mendez.
Neither decision worked as Servania and Durkin weren’t able to advance the ball to Mendez in dangerous spaces. McKenzie definitely didn’t look great at right back but the decision actually made sense as McKenzie hasn’t played much this year and hasn’t started a game since his appendectomy last month.
Starting McKenzie in this game allowed McKenzie to gain some reps while not disrupting the central defense pairing that got the team to this point. As a result, McKenzie is more prepared to start centrally in the knockout stages.
The Servania-Durkin pairing fell apart for a few reasons. For one, Aboubacar Keita had an off game with his distribution and that forced the midfield to drift closer to the backline. Also, Alex Mendez wasn’t moving off the ball well and wasn’t getting himself in good positions where Servania and Mendez could make an effective pass to him. The lines had a difficult time connecting with each other and far too often, the U.S. would begin its possessions deep inside its own half.
And finally, Servania and Durkin are more defensive midfield-oriented players and starting them together limited the number or players in advanced positions. If Paxton Pomykal was needed a rest, that would be one thing but when Pomykal is on the field, the need for two defensive midfielders is redundant as Pomykal normally puts in a good defensive shift – in addition to his offensive attributes.
With all the changes in the starting lineup and so much at stake, the U.S. team looked nervous and tentative. With nothing to lose in this game, Qatar was fearless.
In the second half, the U.S. was simply grittier. They played with a sense of anger – which helped. It was noticeable in their body language and mannerisms. Durkin picked up a yellow card and is suspended for the next game but when he shoved the Qatar player, it was reflective of a team that had a fire lit under it.
Over the last 30 minutes, Qatar’s chances began to dwindle and the U.S. was winning more balls. It should be noted that the winning goal was made possible from a solid defensive play from Mendez – who is not known for his defense.
Even McKenzie grew into the game at right back and looked comfortable whenever Qatar’s attackers tried to isolate him in a 1v1 situations.
Overall, the second half was a decent half of soccer from the U.S. team.
And one final note on the lineup, this isn’t the first time at a U-20 World Cup where Tab Ramos’ team struggled against the team perceived to be the weakest in its group. In 2015, the U.S. team struggled to a 2-1 win over Myanmar and in 2017, the team played to a lackluster 1-1 draw against Saudi Arabia. In both tournaments it would reach the quarterfinals but it was never smooth.
Ochoa likely keeps starting spot
David Ochoa was also a surprising start for Ramos as he decided to give the young goalkeeper a chance over the team’s normal starter, Brady Scott. Ochoa delivered and made the play of the game on a big save from close range after a turnover lead to a 2v1 for Qatar.
Ochoa, 18, is actually eligible for the next U-20 cycle and it is rare to have a starting goal keeper play up a cycle. But Ochoa was confident in commanding his box and the defense grew in confidence with him in goal. It would hardly be surprising if Ramos elects to keep Ochoa in goal in the knockout stage.
It seemed as if Ramos was going to make his substitutions at the start of the second half but he elected to wait until the hour mark before making changes.
Llanez came into the game in the 63rd minute and really helped with some outstanding passing from the wings. Ledezma came into the game in the 84th minute after the U.S. team had the upper hand and helped the U.S. team keep its foot on the gas pedal.
But the U.S. team badly needed some fresher legs and crisper passing and the subs helped to provide that.
Looking ahead to the knockouts
The good news is that the U.S. team is through to the knockout stages and will also get five full days of rest before its knockout round game. So the team will be rested and will have plenty of time to prepare.
The bad news is that knockout game will likely come against a very difficult France team. Also, Ramos will be without Chris Durkin and Alex Mendez due to suspension – so there will have to be big changes to the midfield.
What to expect from that game?
Well Ochoa should start in goal. Chris Golster will start at left back, Chris Richards will take one of the starting central defense spots. Mark Mckenzie should also be ready to move back into the middle alongside Richards.
One of the first big questions will be right back. Sergino Dest has been a mainstay and is great getting forward but Julian Araujo is probably more defensive sound – while also showing promise getting forward and in crossing.
The front three will probably remain unchanged with Tim Weah at right wing, Konrad de la Fuente on the left, and Sebastian Soto in the middle. While Uly Llanez was strong off the bench, he is still probably a sub on this team given that hasn’t played much soccer in 2019.
The midfield will be the most interesting because of the absence of Durkin and Mendez. Pomykal will certainly return. But will he have two defensive midfielders behind him? Or will he have just one defensive midfielder behind him and partner with another attacking midfielder?
If Ramos goes with two defensive midfielders behind Pomykal, it will be Brandon Servania and Edwin Cerrillo – who is yet to play in this tournament.
If Ramos goes with one defensive midfielder and two attacking midfielders, Pomykal will play with Richard Ledezma in the attack. Cerrillo would likely be the defensive midfielder in that situation as he is more inclined to handle a physical game that France or Mali would bring. But a lot of this comes down to Ledezma’s fitness to start as he only recently returned to playing games last month after missing nearly 10 months due to an injury and a move to Holland.
But watching this team from the group stages, it is clear that the attacking midfielders of Pomykal and/or Mendez can get isolated and stranded when not partnered with each other.
The U.S. team has beaten a lot of good teams in its history at the U-20 World Cup. It downed eventual champions Argentina at the group stages in 2005. It beat Brazil and Uruguay in 2007. It beat a very good Colombia team in 2015. It is possible that it could find a way next week but a lot will have to go right and Ramos will have to make a lot of decisions that work out.