Last week I wrote a post on the US Under-20 team that was filled with backhanded compliments, branding the team less complete and far less talented than its recent predecessors, but applauding Tab Ramos and his squad for squeaking out an ugly victory over Haiti. One match later not much about my assessment has changed. But now the team is one more unconvincing victory away from qualifying for the U-20 World Cup in Turkey. And that means that tonight, they’ll attempt to go where no US team has gone… in a while– to a major international competition. To do so, they’ll have to do what no US team has done…in a while– defeat Canada. Heady stuff for Tab Ramos’ bunch. Let’s recap Costa Rica first.
Thoughts on the 1-0 win over Costa Rica:
-The young Yanks put in a better performance than they did against Haiti, vastly out-possessing the Ticos and looking much more dangerous going forward. Tab Ramos hailed the team’s improvement from the Haiti match and said that he “felt the team had the game under control the whole time” and that he was “happy about that.” Read more Tab quotes here.
-They did this without the star of the game one. Daniel Cuevas picked up a slight knock near the end of the Haiti match, so he wasn’t risked against Costa Rica. But his replacement, University of North Carolina and FC Dallas academy winger Daniel Garcia, played one hell of a game. He was dangerous moving off the ball, sound in his distributions, and seemed to have a nice rapport with Jose Villareal, who, as I’ll note below, played a bit of a “false nine” role.
-Game one no-show Jose Villarreal put in a man of the match performance, creating multiple good chances and scoring the only goal of the match off a Luis Gil corner kick. Villarreal played something like a false nine, essentially operating as a central attacking midfielder with a center forward’s base positioning. Villareal does give Ramos versatility in attack, as does Benny Joya, who started out wide after giving us a performance that basically demanded he play out wide in match one. It’s nice to see a US manager at any level watch film and adjust his plans accordingly on the fly, and by slotting Joya out wide, Ramos did just that.
-The Joya-Gil-Villarreal connection was in full effect in this match. All three midfielders looked good, and all three gave the Costa Rican defense problems at times. They also managed to stay under control (for the most part) when things got chippy and undisciplined at the end. Costa Rica committed some very hard, somewhat dangerous fouls and full credit to the US players, particularly these three, who were on the receiving end of many of these tough challenges, for keeping their cool.
-The American defense looked much better in this match. The Ticos still had their chances, but gone were the numerous undeserved breakaways given to Haiti in the first match. The backline communication was better (it couldn’t get any worse), and fullback Juan Pablo Ocegueda was great as he made tackles, competed for every 50/50 ball, and contributed to the American attack. It would be SHOCKING if the US fielded a different backline tonight.
-Goalkeeper Cody Cropper really impressed once again. It’s easy to see why he was wanted in England, especially when he delivers his booming goal kicks and distributions. He doesn’t just kick the ball far for the sake of kicking the ball far either– most these distributions are accurate, which is no small feat at this level. The Americans will need even more from Cropper tonight.
Concerns going into Tuesday afternoon’s crucial Canada match:
-The US attack looked dangerous against Costa Rica, but it wasn’t exactly incisive. I don’t see Ramos changing his system and adding a “tip of the spear” striker to the starting lineup though. Hopefully Gil, Joya, Villarreal and the wingers can turn their good possession around the box into more scoring chances inside the 18.
-Speaking of the wingers, it’s pretty clear that the Daniels, Cuevas and Garcia, have both earned the right to start in the Canada match. But can they play together? Granted they’d be on opposite wings, so I’m not really talking about link-up play. But getting both Daniels on the field would involve flipping one of them to the right wing. It works on paper, but we haven’t seen it on the pitch yet. And if you do that, do you tinker with the formation to ensure Joya is slotted out wide as well? Or do you use Joya as a substitute, and take off the player the game dictates you take off? Tough decisions for Tab Ramos.
-And we haven’t seen the US faced with any meaningful sustained spell of possession and attack from Costa Rica or Haiti. Canada should test this US backline, and that’s a scary proposition.
– As we noted before, the U-20’s tonight are attempting to do what no US team at any level has done in quite some time: defeat Canada. There’s certainly a talent disparity on every level between the two nations, but the Canadians have become a bogey side for the United States. This is largely due to the five-man midfield maze the Canadians have set up in each game. Jurgen Klinsmann and Caleb Porter have each fallen on their faces trying to develop a tactical plan that solves the riddle, and that’s the challenge Tab Ramos will face this evening. If Ramos can solve it, not only will it be a defining moment for a team that on paper didn’t look like the best bet to qualify, it will be a defining moment for the man in charge of that team as well.
— Finally, there is some great video, courtesy of US Soccer, of Tab Ramos as he discusses the U-20 qualifying experience. Can’t miss stuff here.
Do not miss this match.
USA/Canada at 6PM Eastern with the U-20 World Cup on the line. FOX Soccer Channel.