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USMNT: 10 Things We Learned from Watching The U-20 World Cup Team

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Turning in one of their strongest performances ever for a United States club in an U-20 World Cup Tournament should stand as quite an accomplishment for those who were named to and took part in this team’s success. But unfortunately the result left a bad taste in the mouth of most American viewers as the U.S. had multiple opportunities to secure a spot in the semifinals. That chance slipped through their hands when they lost 6-5 on penalty kicks to a Serbian team that rivaled their skill. This American side has a lot to be proud of and what they accomplished should not be overlooked solely because of some poor PK attempts and bad luck.

Through group play the team neither played superb nor horrible. They showed flashes of brilliance that one might not expect from a USYNT member but also displayed plenty of traits that quickly reminded us of the youth present. They opened with a 2-1 come from behind victory over Myanmar in which the confident Americans allowed the pesky Myanmar team to strike first on a miscommunication between Zack Steffen and his back line. Through superior ball control, good adjustments across the front line, and a few substitutions, the U.S. fought their way to the all important first match win.

Many wondered if the lackluster outing against Myanmar was going to be the norm or if it was more of an outlier performance. Those worries were quickly laid to rest in the second match of the World Cup that saw the U.S. win decidedly 4-0 behind a flurry of goals and outstanding play on the ball by the entire midfield but especially the young 18 year old Arsenal phenom, Gedion Zelalem. This match for all intents and purposed was over before it started. The U.S. dominated in every phase of the game and realistically could have scored at least a few more goals had the ball simply fallen in a more favorable fashion.

The third match was unremarkable and better off forgotten than dwelled upon. The U.S. lost 3-0 to a physically imposing Ukraine side hungry to advance to the knockout stages whereas the Americans had already secured positioning in the next round and player on their heels for a majority of the game. Luckily they rebounded well again posting a strong, 90 minute performance against Colombia where they came away victorious once again due in part to a fantastic ball shot on net by Rubio Rubin. The Americans showed grit and resolve that many doubted they, as a group, possessed. It was a refreshing showing and gave many the hope that this just might be the team to advance further than any other.

Meeting their fifth match opponents, the Serbians, in a crucial battle that would end up taking 120 minutes plus almost twenty penalty kicks, the Americans were slightly outmatched and shorthanded leaving them with a knockout loss by a tally of 6-5 on PKs. It was a devastating defeat and it showed in the faces of America’s next generation of superstars as they consoled each other once the result went final. It was evident from the opening whistle to the last penalty kick finding the back of the net for Serbia that the U.S. coaches and players did everything within their power to come out victorious, but this time it was just not quite enough.

With so much positives coming out of this tournament run, it is important that we the American soccer public recognize and applaud all the great things we can take away from this cycle. Here are 10 things we learned from watching this team compete at the U-20 World Cup the past few weeks:

This team played their hearts out & played for each other

It was mentioned by many who woke up at all times of the night, prioritizing watching America’s next generation over sweet sleep that this U.S. side was not a bunch of individuals playing for his own glory; no, it was a team playing for each other and for the glory of a nation budding with enthusiasm for the sport. The 23-man roster featured standouts, high profile names from some of the largest and most well-known club’s in the world and some no name players looking to establish themselves on the international level. All combined they shared in moments of extreme happiness finding success on many occasions when players played beyond their years of experience; but they also shared in the heart wrenching moments of defeat and in these moments was where it couldn’t have been clearer that this team originally assembled as a star-studded group of young men but would leave New Zealand as a family, with forged bonds that will never be broken.

Paul Arriola’s work rate is second to none

One of the more pleasant revelations of the tournament was undoubtedly the play of Paul Arriola. From his very step onto the field he seemed to instantly make an impact with his innate sense of creating plays utilizing his pace and physical strength. Arriola affected the outcome of each game he played in and found himself a valued member of the starting lineup as the tournament progressed. The goal he scored against New Zealand in the 4-0 rout was no small bit of skill, though Zelalem placed the ball in perfect position for the finishing strike. His ability in the final third along with his tracking back from even a more forward position makes him an attractive prospect for the full USMNT. It will only be a matter of time before he breaks through in a serious way with Tijuana.

Cameron Carter-Vickers is a center back to build a back line around

The youngest member of the US U-20 World Cup team, Carter-Vickers put forth an effort that could have easily landed him on the All-World Cup starting XI. The 17 year old rising star, whose rights belong to Tottenham Hotspurs, was always in position, always found a way to muscle even the speediest of attackers off the ball, and always made the right play. Inherently it isn’t correct to use the term “always” in a sport such as soccer, but this kid just always impressed at every turn. I found it fascinating in watching him that he was strong enough to play with guys who were 2-3 years older them him and not once did anybody force him off the ball or push him around.

If anything, he was the one doing the pushing and bodying. I expect nothing but a rapid advance up the ranks at Tottenham followed by a cap-tying call in to the senior team sooner rather than later. When not-so-casual fans of the game are asking whether he might be the finest CB to ever don the red, white, blue at this age group, you know he is going to be something special.

Gedion Zelalem has the “it” factor

Making the most of his highly anticipated debut for the U.S., Zelalem excited with almost every touch and only stoked the fire more for the fervor that is his American following. Coming on in the second half of the first match of the World Cup was the right play by Head Coach Tab Ramos as it allowed him to feel things out and get his feet wet before a match was really on the line. Each time he had the ball at his feet it felt as though he was going to perform another great skill. There is no limit to what he is capable of as long as he stays hungry and continue to grow as a player. After the first match against Myanmar, it was evident what he brought to the lineup and he became a fixture from that point forward. There were more people talking about his individual skill on the ball in the blowout of New Zealand than there would have been watching the entire tournament 2 years ago. He dazzled and showed why Arsenal are so keen on his development. The improvements he must make are appropriate for his age and not things that will be all that difficult to improve (i.e. better passing and shooting with his left foot and more muscle on his frame). He will feature for the USMNT sooner rather than later and there may come a day where he is our rallying cry towards the best U.S.A. finish in World Cup history.

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Zack Steffen should be highly rated for his age and will ultimately make a World Cup start for the USMNT

Steffen did not enter this tournament as one of the more exciting names on this U-20 roster. If anything his importance may have been downplayed because he was surrounded by so many other stars. That all changed over the course of the tournament. Steffen made some ridiculous saves to keep his team in contention, on not one occasion, or two occasions, but seemingly every time he stood between the sticks. He conceded only four goals total over five matches and three of them came in one match after the team had already secured a spot in the knockout stages. He made a total of three PK saves, which is unheard of among average goalkeepers.

His most impressive performance came in their last match against Serbia where he kept a strong Serbian side scoreless through 120 minutes then proceeded to save 2 sudden death penalty kicks giving his team hope for victory. Tragically, his efforts fell short as a few of his teammates failed to convert PKs, but nothing could take away from what he did. It is a little premature to think about him in terms of the USMNT picture. Many devoted fans and media that follow U.S. Soccer happenings religiously are whispering debate about if you had to choose a keeper right here and now, would you take Zack Steffen or Cody Cropper (U23 Starting GK)? My money would be on Steffen and I would not be surprised at all if U-23’s head coach Andi Herzog agreed and at the very least included him in the 23 man roster for Olympic qualifying come October.

Rubio Rubin is already capable of holding his own as a senior team target forward

Arguably the USMNT’s strongest player across the board, Rubin put on display the skills Jurgen Klinsmann alludes to when he speaks highly of the 19 year-old youngster starting for Eredivisie side FC Utrecht. Rubin has been called in to multiple USMNT camps/friendlies and now more of the U.S. fan base sees the reasoning behind that decision. He never stops running, hustling, working for every ball as if it is his to lose. This is a trait not all forwards exhibit and he has a knack for it. He knows how to finish and has the body to play hold up soccer.

Another aspect of his game that makes him dangerous is he is not afraid to put a ball on goal but also shows no reluctance to make the extra pass to set up a teammate with better positioning. That may be a factor that sets him apart enough to earn a coveted World Cup roster spot in the future.

Injuries to Maki Tall and Bradford Jamieson IV hurt the team’s chances of advancing

When you lose two forwards who have the ability to play with the ball at their feet and another is prohibited to join the team by his club, you are automatically put at a disadvantage. Then factor in that each game wears on the players and in their final match the team was not only tasked with going the full 90, but also had to play an extra 30 minutes and attempt sharp penalty kicks; the reason this team did not advance starts to come into focus.

Tall was a definite difference maker in the first half of the Myanmar match, especially when it felt like the U.S. players were all feeling each other out and had no rhythm as a unit. Then Jamieson put forth some good performances as a replacement, but went down with a concussion limiting Ramos’ options even more. Blame cannot be placed on one person alone, but it was crystal clear that these injuries hurt our chances of making the semifinals of the tournament.

Emerson Hyndman showed why he will one day step into a starting midfielder role on the USMNT

Emerson Hyndman did not have the best of tournaments overall. At times it was easy to forget he was even on the field. That is no small charge to someone who is supposed to be a big key to a possession-based attack. I get it. I am also not worried about it.

Hyndman is so smooth, so collected with the ball at his feet it feels like a constant security blanket is wrapped around the team whenever he is dribbling. He has a vision that most in this age group lack which is part of why I am so how on him as well as his fellow midfield mate, Zelalem. Emerson is another player who needs to fill out, needs to be stronger on the ball, and also needs to add a little more bite to his game.

But at the end of this tournament, I came away feeling very positive about his showing and saw glimpses of those great Michael Bradley passes and runs in this youngster’s game. This is enough for me to believe there is a future for him within the USMNT.

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Desevio Payne’s steady, reliable play was the surprise of the tournament

What a pleasant surprise this young right back currently playing for FC Groningen ended up being. It was only weeks before the World Cup began that it was discovered that Payne would be willing and able to play for the U.S. U-20’s. His situation was uncertain for a few reasons but luckily for us all, he was cleared. He is another example of a player who made the most of his time, and much like Arriola, provided an instant impact when he was in the game.

In fact, with him on the field, the U.S. never conceded a goal the entire tournament. He is the best option at right back for this age group and one could argue is the best option for the Olympic qualifying matches as well. Right back is one of the weakest positions in the U.S. player pool. Payne must continue to progress and sharpen his on the ball defending on the wing but there certainly is a spot for him should he do so.

The Future is Bright

Arsenal. Tottenham. Fulham. Boca Juniors. Tijuana. FC Utrecht. LA Galaxy. Freiburg.

These are just a few of the club’s represented on this 23-man roster. Some of these players are earning first team minutes (Matt Miazga, Bradford Jamieson IV, Rubio Rubin, Emerson Hyndman to name a few), while others are climbing through the ranks towards said position. Our pipeline is getting more and more talent-laden with players earning opportunities at younger ages to showcase what they are capable of. This bodes well for the now and for the future where I envision a player pool so deep, the USMNT head coach will literally have to make very difficult decisions on who to bring to major worldwide tournament, such as the Confederations Cup or World Cup. There is so much here to build on and I could not be more excited to see how many of these players pan out. Will everyone in this group succeed? No. Will the entire starting XI end up on a World Cup roster at some point? Odds are against it happening. But that shouldn’t put a damper on the fire that is burning within U.S. Soccer as we speak.

Bold Prediction: A minimum of 6 of the players who played in this tournament will feature for the USMNT and receive 15 or more caps. Three or more will earn starting positions in a World Cup at some point during their careers.

This statement goes against historical numbers and precedent but I firmly believe that the talent level on this team also defies past standards. We are entering a new age here in the United States and I believe this age group is at the forefront.

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