FOX Soccer Exclusive
USA injuries make Turkey task tougher
Qualification for the FIFA U-20 World Cup represents a reward unto itself, but the United States Under-20 men's national team could reasonably lament its lot when it landed in Group A alongside France, Ghana and Spain.
Such a rigorous draw represented scant compensation for the hard toil undertaken in Mexico earlier this year. It isn't easy to qualify for the grand stage out of CONCACAF, as some previous USA youth sides found out all too painfully in recent years. And the Americans returned home with ample credit after placing second in the tournament to book this trip to Turkey and taking the hosts to extra-time in a compelling final despite the absence of several key figures.
Aside from injured lynchpins Will Packwood (Birmingham City) and Marc Pelosi (Liverpool), the revamped group poised to commence this daunting journey against the all-conquering Spanish on Friday in Istanbul boasts most of the missing players from that night.
United States manager Tab Ramos can rely on captain Caleb Stanko (SC Freiburg) to partner Shane O'Neill (Colorado Rapids) in central defense and DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders) to overlap often from his perch at right back. He can trust Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil – passed fit after a taking a knock in a friendly against Portugal on Friday – to create opportunities for Daniel Cuevas (Santos Laguna), Mario Rodríguez (Kaiserslautern) and Jose Villarreal (LA Galaxy). He can even turn to Monterrey forward Alonso Hernández – a player that only entered the reckoning in April after earning first-team time with the Liga MX side – if he needs a further spark.
“We feel very good about our roster and the players we have selected, and we certainly feel like we have good talent here with us,” Ramos said during a conference call on Tuesday.
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Ramos and his players have spent the past couple of weeks forming their identity and working through the improvements required to compete at this level. A poor showing at the Toulon Tournament in late May and early June reinforced the strides required to claim one of the two available berths out of group play.
“We didn’t have an opportunity to have the team together too much, but one of the things we had to prepare for when playing European teams as opposed to playing CONCACAF teams is the speed of transition from offense to defense and defense to offense,” Ramos said. “We’ve tried to work over the last two or three weeks that we’ve been together on our transition from losing the ball to try to recover it. That’s been a challenge for us because many of our players are not used to that speed of play.”
The margin for error isn't wide given the three difficult group matches ahead. All of the expected fixtures – including goalkeeper Cody Cropper (Southampton) and midfielder Benji Joya (Santos Laguna), plus the likes of Gil, Stanko and Villarreal – must produce something close to their best form. The outfit as a whole must maintain its shape to mitigate its anticipated defensive frailty and push forward prudently to avoid conceding possession while exposed to the counter.
Even with those measures in place, the Americans face a monumental task to overcome Spain in the opener. The tiki-taka style deployed to devastating effect at the senior level provides the foundation for each of the successful youth teams, including the recent European Under-21 Championship winners led by Thiago Alcântara and the group dispatched to Turkey to secure the latest title. This group – bolstered by Barcelona starlet Gerard Deulofeu and Liverpool midfielder Suso – boasts the tools required to replicate that sort of tempo and incisiveness.
Ramos said his scouting backs up the natural comparisons inevitably drawn with the first-team, but he also noted that his team can draw some inspiration from another unexpected triumph against the Spanish.
“The US versus Spain game – I believe it was four years ago – the game where the US beat Spain 2-0 (in the 2009 Confederations Cup), is a game that we’d like to go back to,” Ramos said. “We’re probably going to show a little video of that to the players so that they know that our first team upset Spain a few years ago and there’s no reason we can’t do the same on Friday.”
A defeat leaves the U.S. with plenty of work to do in the subsequent group matches against France (June 24 in Istanbul) and Ghana (June 27 in Kayseri). The gauntlet ahead points to a swift exit, but Ramos sidestepped any questions about the internal expectations for this tournament and focused on the potential positives of this draw.
“I do know that if we can somehow survive in our group and get through to the next stage, I think that coming out of this group, we would probably be able to beat anybody,” Ramos said.
At that point, this daunting road may actually constitute a prize of sorts. For now, the situation just presents a series of considerable hurdles the U.S. must clear in order to extend its Turkish stay into July.
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