Well that was quite different, wasn’t it?
It was an uninspired first match for the US U-20 team to start the 2013 CONCACAF Championship/U-20 World Cup Qualification Tournament, but a match in which a shorthanded team fought through its weaknesses to pick up an ugly win against an inferior opponent. Can’t think of the last time a US development team gutted one out like that. But they did.
And that may have to be the recipe going forward for this group of relatively unheralded young Yanks, though sadly there aren’t many probable opponents that would fit the “inferior” bill like Haiti did. So why should US Soccer fans be encouraged by this latest unglamorous edition of the U-20 squad?
Contrast with the past.
Remember the U-20 team from two years ago? Joe Gyau, Conor Doyle, Amobi Okugo, Sebastien Lletget, Perry Kitchen, and more raw talent across the board than even the 2007 Brazil-beating squad of current USMNT regulars could boast. The 2011 U-20 US squad should have been the best male youth team our growing soccer nation has ever put together. And maybe they still will be on a player-by-player basis, like looking at the 2001 Miami Hurricanes football team and deciding that they were the best ever based on each player’s future NFL accomplishments.
But none of that video game skill-worshipping horse crap plays in the real world, especially not when that team failed to even get out of its group at this tourney in 2011. And a large contingent of that wildly underachieving team would go on to break our hearts once again in last year’s U-23 Olympic Qualification Tournament. What’s more, both teams did it to us (and themselves, and their respective coaches) in exactly the same way.
Here’s the most disappointing recipe since New Coke: The players look like world beaters coming into the tournament. They then give a thoroughly attractive and professional performance in the first match before failing to deal with even the slightest bit of adversity and crashing out of the group stage in tragic fashion.
Many TYAC readers felt that disappointment like a delayed double punch to the gut, so count yourself lucky if you were busy with life, work, or school and happened to miss those matches.
But here’s the glimmer of hope. And believe me, at this point it’s no more than a glimmer, but here it is. Those aforementioned (and duly bashed) teams would never have played a match like the one this U-20 squad played on Monday. Oh they would have hogged possession, played prettier passes, and come forward en masse in a much more menacing manner. But had they taken a few stiff jabs to the jaw, they wouldn’t have won the damn match. In fact, the last time we saw a US development team see that little of the ball was last year’s Olympic qualifying fiasco against Canada and it’s five man midfield- and even that team, clueless as to what to do tactically, saw more of the ball. They lost, too, of course.
Tab Ramos’ team showed the intestinal fortitude to do whatever it took to win a match that hung in the balance, and that provides a hell of contrast with the performances we’ve seen from the US Under-20’s and Under-23’s recently.
The match also contained some pretty fitting variations on a theme for us journalistic storyline types to harp on. Luis Gil and Jose Villareal were the dynamic stars we were promised within this team, so of course it was winger Daniel “Nobody Said My Name” Cuevas who provided the no-doubt-about-it man of the match performance. Cuevas electrified with his pace, changed the game with his vision, scored with a rocket of a shot and was the only constant threat for the United States in attack. Cuevas also secured the Americans the fast start and confidence they needed, drawing a penalty on a blistering run in the second minute that was converted by Luis Gil. Credit Gil- he had a quiet, even mediocre, night, but he converted the penalty with professionalism.
Meanwhile Tab Ramos felt he had to play midfielder Caleb Stanko at center back, while two according-to-Hoyle central defenders started on the defensive flanks. So it’s no surprise the backline, held together with duct tape and rearview mirror repair epoxy, appeared to be suffering from an acute case of vertigo for 90 plus. But in the face of innumerable “Stanko” puns and just as many unmarked runs at Cody Cropper’s box, this team got all three points. And hey, look at the bright side- John Brooks should be available come World Cup time, and there’s little question the Hertha BSC man, one of the finer prospects in US Soccer, will help stabilize things.
There’s a ton that this team has yet to get right, but it should be encouraging at the least to have seen a pressure performance and a win coming out of a relatively even, relatively back and forth, affair. Now if Jose Villarreal will take off his soccer turf ghillie suit and get in on some build-up play we might really be in business. Most important, of course, is the three points, and given Costa Rica’s hard-fought 1-0 victory over Haiti tonight, the U.S. have already secured a spot in the quarterfinal. They can win the group with a draw against Costa Rica Friday, and that would set up a favorable quarterfinal, even for a team that appears a bit leaner on talent than their predecessors.
This roster has a distinctly “Jurgen Klinsmann” look to it, as opposed to a “Thomas Rongen” look. Klinsmann puts an emphasis on finding eligible players with Latin American roots, and we obviously know about his affinity for players that ply their trade in his native Germany. So the standouts from the Scandinavian leagues and elsewhere “off the grid” that Thomas Rongen used to unearth regularly seem to have been replaced by guys that play in Mexico and Germany. This isn’t a bad thing, because the old guard didn’t do all it could to naturalize national team fence-sitters and tap the German and Mexican resources, but you’ve gotta hope we’re not missing out on the next Mix Diskerud without Thomas Rongen’s boots on the ground. And on that note, now Norway is trying to poach Mix from the USMNT because he’s not cap-tied yet. Should be a no-brainer for Jurgen to carry Diskerud on his roster for the next two qualifiers, seeing as he’s versatile enough play any of the attacking midfield spots. But Klinsmann will probably just start Danny Williams at all ten outfield positions, leaving no room for anyone else.
When Jermaine Jones scored against Galatasaray in Turkey today, it was only the second time in the history of US Soccer that’s occurred. DaMarcus Beasley accomplished the feat for PSV in 2005. Jones goal was a vision of technical quality, across his body and into the right corner. Naturally, Jones also picked up a yellow card in the match, for simulation, dissent, or some combination of the two. Either way, it was quite an accomplishment for Jones, who has really turned the corner at Schalke and has become a reliable leader for a team with a great shot at the Champions’ League quarterfinals. Hard to believe only two years ago he was loaned to Blackburn Rovers, and his future with the German giant was very much in doubt.
Jon Levy is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can and should follow his excellent Twitter feed at @TYAC_Jon.