I couple weeks ago I sent a text message to TYAC cofounder Neil W. Blackmon that was filled with equal parts logical analysis and fanboy hope. Contained in the text was my premonition that the American Under-20 team heading to the U-20 World Cup in Turkey would somehow successfully navigate the group of death and qualify for the knockout round. That would mean facing Spain, France, and Ghana, and somehow finishing in the top two after three matches. I know that’s a tough sell, but part of me thought the European powers would cannibalize their respective Under-20 sides by giving priority to their U-21 setups, which they have. Another part of me was impressed by Tab Ramos and the mentally tough side he’d assembled that had already exceeded many expectations in qualifying and giving Mexico all they could handle in the CONCACAF final. All of me was unapologetically American, hoping that the good guys would triumph over evil in spectacular fashion.
Now we’re two matches in, and probably one match from going home. Things aren’t looking so good, but they could be worse. And as Jeff Bradley (yes, Bob’s brother) tweeted yesterday- if you’d have given the US a chance to defeat Ghana and possibly advance with a bit of luck at the beginning of the tournament, they’d have taken it, no questions asked.
US Soccer living-legend-turned-coach Tab Ramos miscalculated in his game plan for the first match against Spain, underestimating the Spanish take-no-prisoners attack (in all fairness, nobody expects the Spanish inquisition) and overestimating his wobbly backline’s ability to execute. The Yanks were killed on the counter and lost 4-1 despite out-possessing SPAIN for long periods. But Coach Tab’s corrections heading into the France match were spot on. He got half the team behind the ball when the French were building what would have otherwise been a beautiful possession-based attack. I mean it was still a possession-based attack from a bunch of super-talented players, the Yanks just took most of the beauty out of it. Well done. The US earns 1-1 a draw in an entertaining match that was defined by a far more even number of real chances than any simple shot chart would disclose. And as fair a result as the draw was for both sides, the US felt, according to Ramos, that they left two points on the field, largely due to a shockingly poor penalty from Real Salt Lake’s Luis Gil, who has otherwise been splendid in this competition.
And that brings us to the world we’re living in right now. A world where France beat Ghana 3-1 on the first matchday, and Spain nicked ‘em 1-0 on Monday. If you’re playing “Who’s in? Who’s out? And what’s the goal differential?” at home, here’s the score. Ghana’s already eliminated, and Spain is through to the next round. Spain can win the group with a win or draw in the match against France. France win the group with a win over Spain, and take second place with a draw. But what if France loses to Spain you say? Now it’s time to look at that USA-Ghana match. That’s how we like to get booted from big boy World Cups right? The Ghana match. So here’s the deal: The US needs to beat Ghana and have France lose to Spain, but that’s not all, not by a long shot. You’re looking at a five goal differential between the Americans’ minus-3 and France’s plus-2. So y’know, I probably shouldn’t be writing about us having a chance in hell, but USA/Egypt and Brazil/Italy happened four summers ago, and this time we’ve got Spain on our side… in soccer!
I’ll get to Spain/France in a minute; first let’s take a quick look at how Tab’s U-20’s might look to get a big win by a significant margin over Ghana:
Like our snappy stupid headline says, “It’s a Trap(p)!” Will Trapp to be exact. The former Akron Zip and current Columbus Crew man was left twisting and turning defensively in the opening match against Spain despite playing relatively well with the ball at his feet. Spain would bypass the midfield at will and the central midfield duo of Trapp and Joya generally got a good view of the Spanish precision as they were running back towards Cody Cropper’s net. Trapp and Joya corrected those mistakes against France and successfully shielded the American backline while gradually growing into that game offensively.
One big problem heading into the Ghana match: Benji Joya is suspended on yellow card accumulation. Joya’s not just Trapp’s partner, he’s the dude Tab Ramos has correctly described as the glue that holds this team together. How much heavier did Trapp’s workload against Ghana just become?
The good news: as note above, Real Salt Lake’s attacking midfielder Luis Gil has been the best US player in this tournament. He scored a wonder-goal on Spain, created the equalizer against France, and despite the missed penalty, he’s been great in both generating and taking chances for two full matches. So Trapp will have help through the middle; he won’t have to do his best 2008 Steven Gerrard for Liverpool imitation.
That said, despite being paired with another capable pair of feet like Mikey Lopez, Will Trapp is going to have to channel Michael Bradley. We’ve seen him do it in the CONCACAF qualifying tourney, especially in the make-or-break match against Canada, and not just because he ripped a goal from long range. If Trapp can shield the backline by himself against Ghana (no easy task), then start the offense with smartly-taken runs and well-placed passes, Tab Ramos and Luis Gil will find it easier to engineer the necessary attacking moves in front of him.
But even if Trapp plays the perfect game, a victory, especially one by a large margin, is going to be hard to come by against Ghana. This is a team that only let Spain score once, and hemmed France in for an hour before they were picked apart. Maybe they’re so goal-starved that they’ll leave themselves more open at the back? Or perhaps they’ll attack with reckless abandon, knowing they are eliminated anyway and hoping to put their mark on the tournament regardless with a stylish victory? It’s possible, but through two matches, there is no indication that Ghana wants to do anything except defend admirably and pick their spots on the counterattack. Given the US is not France or Spain, we expect them to play a bit more openly, but manager Sellas Tetteh, a longtime Black Stars coach and veteran of the 2006 World Cup coaching staff, is extremely unlikely to put his boys in a position to be embarrassed. He won’t reinvent the wheel, so if the US is to secure a big victory, they’ll have to go out and earn it.
As for the Spain/France matchup, we’re looking at something quite different than we’d see between these two nations at senior national team level. While France may aspire to the same style that we see out of Les Bleus, the Spain U-20’s are like La Furia Roja in Bizarro World. They don’t, as presently constituted, play tiki-taka, they play vamos-¡VAMOS! Watching them play The States was like watching Dortmund sans Lewandowski, or maybe Portugal on a good day. So they could ring up three or four goals on anyone, right? Absolutely. But I think this France squad is the better, more balanced team. Spain is facing more pressure to win the group though, just because they’re Spain. They’re now “supposed to win” every international tournament, even if they’re not (seriously, who installed Jordi Alba and his merry band of defense-optional La Liga niños as favorites at the Olympics?). Warranted or not, that Spanish pressure combined with the ultra-attacking mindset of this particular incarnation of España could open the door for a typically determined, typically American, group of never-say-die Yanks.
I guess I’m tellin’ you there’s a chance.
Short Corners: Why hasn’t Daniel Cuevas been starting this whole tournament? Why didn’t he start more matches at the Toulon Invitational? The dude sparkles on the wing every time he touches the field. I know he doesn’t track back or back pass as well as Danny Garcia, but Danny doesn’t pressure the opposing defense like Cuevas. He also doesn’t score like him.
I’ve got to throw an honorable mention at Javan Torre for coming off a piss poor performance in the first match to compete physically with a couple great French professionals for ninety plus. Somebody must have ripped this kid a new one between games, because he wasn’t conceding an inch against France, and he was able to put in that kind of showing without sacrificing much in the way of positioning. Oh and his foul that led to the PK should have been a free kick, but he was definitely caught out on that one occasion. That’s all the opening the great teams need.
It has not been a great competition for LA Galaxy man Jose Villareal. He was a guy the US looked to be able to count on for good performances in the qualifying tournament and based on his play at the Home Depot Center this year, but he was overwhelmed against Spain and ineffectual for large swaths of the France match. It’s time for him to find his game. Past time.
There has been a great deal of criticism of Tab Ramos following the 4-1 loss to Spain from armchair tacticians that would have bunkered back, presumably to prevent a goal differential disaster. Here’s the thing—this was a weak backline to begin with, so playing the way Ramos’ side did was at least theoretically justifiable. One way to put protect a poor central defense is to suck midfielders out wide, work the flanks and pressure up the field. The execution was lacking, and as such, the central defense was exposed.
And here is where you criticize Ramos, because what is not justifiable is the omission of FC Dallas whiz kid Walker Zimmerman from this roster. Perhaps with Zimmerman, Ramos would have been more comfortable sitting back against Spain and absorbing wave after wave of pressure. It’s hard to say, but I think if you are going to criticize Ramos for something, it would have to be his CB selections for the tournament, not his tactical decision to play aggressively against Spain. We’ll see if the Zimmerman-less backline can hold up well enough to give the US a chance to advance against Ghana.