The U.S. Under-20s secured their place in the World Cup round of 16, but hardly looked convincing getting there.
Thursday’s Under-20 World Cup group stage finale looked like the perfect opportunity for Tab Ramos to shuffle his bench and give some key players rest before the knockout rounds. That is if you were under the impression that Qatar was a pushover. Ramos clearly didn’t and trotted out many of the same starters who had featured in the team’s previous two group matches.
The result was a tired-looking performance by the Americans against an inspired Qatar side that showed why it gave Ukraine trouble in group play. If not for some excellent goalkeeping from David Ochoa, and some wasteful finishing from Qatar, the Americans would have been a goal or two down in a forgettable first half.
But fortune favored the United States on Thursday, leaving the door open for Tim Weah to work some magic and salvage the U.S. Under-20s.
Weah’s winner helped secure the U.S. team’s place in the knockout rounds, but it didn’t erase a flat showing from a team that had looked so impressive against Nigeria. The midfield lacked the dynamism it had shown in previous matches, with playmaker Alex Mendez looking off his normally high level and Chris Durkin and Brandon Servania failing to generate much to support the attack.
On the surface, the fact the United States won suggests the lineup choices were good ones, but were they? Some clearly were, like the move to give Ochoa the start in goal. The Real Monarchs netminder was excellent playing in place of Brady Scott, but his inclusion was the only risk Ramos took that could be considered a clear success.
If anything, the play of substitutes Ulysses Llanez and Richie Ledezma provided more support for the notion that Ramos missed an opportunity to rotate his squad more than he did. Not only because of potential fatigue, but also because of the potential for suspension-triggering yellow cards.
Mendez and Durkin played like they were worn out, and while Mendez was still able to make some very good plays, both he and Durkin made mistakes tired players make to earn yellow cards that will keep them both out of the round of 16 match on June 4 against either France or Mali.
Ramos rested Paxton Pomykal, but didn’t have enough faith in his bench to sit his entire first-choice central midfield against Qatar. Would it have been risky to go with a trio like Ledezma, Edwin Cerrillo and Servania? Ledezma looked sharp in his nine-minute cameo appearance on Thursday while Cerrillo is a regular starter for FC Dallas and could have handled the job of trying to contain Qatar’s tricky midfielders.
Now Ramos will have to turn to Ledezma and Cerrillo in the round of 16 and hope Pomykal is good to go after sitting him against Qatar. Pomykal was dynamic in each of the U.S. team’s first two group matches, but he’s also coming off a hamstring injury before the tournament.
There are fewer concerns about the defense, which is healthy after the group stage. Mark McKenzie was steady at right back, but Aboubacar Keita had several shocking turnovers in what was his third straight group-stage start. The move makes you wonder if Ramos shouldn’t have rested him and started McKenzie in central defense, with LA Galaxy fullback Julian Araujo an option at right back.
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Overall, Ramos can be happy with his defense, particularly the stellar play of Chris Richards and Chris Gloster, two of the only players to start all three group stage matches without struggling in any of them.
Building an attack without Mendez will be Ramos’ challenge for the next round, though he will still have Weah at his disposal. The PSG attacker has made an impact in all three U.S. matches, even though there’s still a sense that he’s underperforming at the World Cup.
He assisted on the lone goal in the loss to Ukraine, then was involved in the build-up of the opening U.S. goal against Nigeria. On Thursday, Weah not only showed off his skills to score the game’s lone goal, he came close to adding a second later in the second half only to have his chance thwarted by Qatar’s goalkeeper.
As quiet as Weah was before the goal, there’s no denying he had two of the best U.S. chances on the day, finishing one of them. He has been far more effective working on the left wing, and he’s developing a rapport with teammates who he wasn’t totally familiar with prior to the World Cup. With Mendez suspended for the next match, Ramos will need to lean on Weah even more to lead the attack.
Weah can’t do it alone though, and if we saw one thing in the second half, it was two creative players who could boost the attack in Llanez and Ledezma. If they can make things happen like they did in the second half against Qatar, Weah and Sebastian Soto could have the opportunities necessary to pull off a round of 16 victory.
That being said, if the Americans come out flat on Tuesday the way they did against Qatar, their Under-20 World Cup will not just end, it will end badly.