Cast aside any reasonable notions of a job already completed. Forget about the potential for shifting priorities in the wake of a World Cup-clinching victory over Canada on Tuesday night.
Even with that precious berth now in hand, the US under-20 national team still retains one of its primary objectives ahead of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship semifinal against Cuba (live, FOX Soccer, Friday, 6 p.m. ET): win the tournament.
"Even though we’ve qualified for the World Cup, we want to win the whole thing," US goalkeeper Cody Cropper said after the Americans went through a light training session at Estadio Cuauhtemoc on Thursday night. "I don’t think there’s a player on this team that will settle for taking third or fourth place after tomorrow night. We want to win."
Any sort of letdown could pave the way for the upstart Cubans to advance to the final on Sunday. Cuba entered this tournament with modest expectations. It will leave with its first FIFA U-20 World Cup berth in hand after defeating Costa Rica 2-1 on Tuesday night.
Cuba’s unblemished run to the semifinals offers the biggest surprise of this championship so far, but it isn’t a fluke. This athletic and physical side boasts the second-best defensive record (two goals conceded in three matches) and the second-top scorer (Group B hero Maykel Reyes) after the first three games of the tournament. And the victory over Costa Rica required to reach this stage hinged on merit, not through some stroke of luck at the opportune time.
"We know Cuba is a very good team," US under-20 coach Tab Ramos said. "They won their group and they beat a good Costa Rica team after that. We know that we’re going to have a tough time, that’s for sure. They’re a very athletic team. They’re big. They hold the ball well. They are definitely a team that is prepared for the World Cup."
Ramos and his players plan to start their own preparations for the trip to Turkey on Friday night. Plenty of work remains between now and June to lay the proper groundwork for the trials ahead. Every match between now and the start of the World Cup presents an opportunity to hone the qualities required – Ramos cited the need for more incisiveness during sustained spells in possession, for instance – to thrive against better opposition.
Each player now faces his own pragmatic concerns as well. The competition for places on the World Cup roster started after the final whistle against the Canadians. There are plenty of other candidates ready and willing to state their cases for a spot on the plane. Positive displays over the next couple of days – the US will face either the winner or the loser of the other semifinal between El Salvador and Mexico on Sunday depending on the result against Cuba – could help to form a persuasive argument in the bid to claim one of those precious roster spots.
"I think every player who is out here has a chance to show what they can do to Tab and to the coaching staff," Cropper said. "Tomorrow – and the next game after that – is a good chance to show what we can do. Now that the pressure’s off, it’s even more of an opportunity. Players who haven’t played will get the chance to show what they can do."
Those chances to impress arise from necessity, not choice. Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Jerome Kiesewetter (VfB Stuttgart) and captain Caleb Stanko (SC Freiburg) returned to their club sides after the victory over Canada. Eric Miller missed out on a place in the squad on Tuesday due to injury and may not feature against Cuba, either.
Mikey Lopez’s return from a one-match ban for caution accumulation provides Ramos with an additional midfield option to buttress his rapidly thinning squad, but Lopez’s presence alone does not allay the issues created by the departures of primary creative influence Gil and defensive fixture Stanko from their usual berths in the starting XI.
"We’re not concerned about [the absences] because it is a great opportunity for the guys who have a chance to play," Ramos said. "I’m hoping that every player is hungry to be on the World Cup roster come June. Tomorrow night’s game will be one of those games that is sort of a World Cup preview."
Preview or not, the stakes remain high. A place in the final is on the line. And these players must show that their previous achievements will not distract them from completing a task still unfinished: lifting the trophy on Sunday night.