The United States U20’s take on Canada tomorrow evening in Puebla, Mexico with World Cup qualification on the line. The Americans won Group A with a 2-0 record, beating Haiti 2-1 and Costa Rica 1-0, to advance to this quarterfinal knockout round.
Coach Tab Ramos and his team will be trying to reverse a disastrous run of form for U.S. youth teams that began with a loss to Guatemala at this same stage of the 2011 tournament in Guatemala. That loss kept the highly touted United States team out of the U20 World Cup and cost coach Thomas Rongen his job. Ramos served as Rongen’s top assistant, so he won’t need to be reminded of the stakes. The United States compounded that U20 flop when the U23 team failed to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics, despite having the benefit of hosting the Concacaf qualifiers. That Mexico, the Yanks greatest rival, went on to win Olympic Gold, only served to rub salt in the wounds of a U.S. program still looking for answers after taking a 4-2 drubbing from El Tri in the 2011 Gold Cup Final.
Canada advanced to this quarterfinal match-up with their nearest neighbors on the strength of a 5-1 romp over disappointing Nicaragua, having lost their opener 2-1 to Group B winners Cuba. Canada will look for confidence to a 2-1 victory over the U.S. last October in Spain. In that Marbella Cup encounter the Canucks edged the U.S. on goals from Samuel Piette and Caleb Clarke. Mario Rodriguez scored the American goal that day, but the man who set it up, Marc Pelosi wasn’t released by Liverpool for this tournament. After breaking his leg while playing for the Liverpool U21 team, Pelosi won’t be available should the U.S. qualify for the U20 World Cup this summer in Turkey.
This U.S. team looks to be very much a work in progress. The Americans pounced for two first half goals against Haiti, before conceding early in the second half, and then just about hanging on. The U.S. center back pairing of Caleb Stanko and Shane O’Neill rarely seemed to be on the same page against Haiti, not altogether surprising, as the two have rarely played together and are each more experienced midfielders. Ramos reacted by playing defensive midfielder Mikey Lopez from the start against Costa Rica, alongside fellow d-mid Will Trapp and replacing both of his fullbacks.
The changes worked, and despite the more defensive posture, the U.S. had a solid foundation that allowed their skillful front men to shine. Although the U.S. should have hit the target more that once versus the Ticos, there were times during this match that Ramos’ side approached the proactive, passing style of play that U.S. Soccer promised, but has rarely delivered, when Jurgen Klinsmann was handed the reins of the national team program.
Canada have some talented players led by Piette, Caleb Clarke, who notched two goals against Nicaragua and defender Doneil Henry, but if the defense holds the U.S. should be good enough to qualify tomorrow evening. Goalkeeper Cody Cropper hasn’t been overtaxed in this tournament, but he has looked sharp when needed. The defensive effort was better against Costa Rica, although Ramos would be delighted to be able to run Will Packwood, John Anthony Brooks or Walker Zimmermann out there in the heart of his defense.
But the U.S. hopes of claiming their place in the 2013 U20 World Cup this summer in Turkey will come down to how well Gil, Joya and the rest can control possession, and whether Jose Villarreal, Daniel Cuevas or someone else can take their goal scoring chances when they get them.
Interestingly, the players on this team may be better suited to implement the style of play that Klinsmann was brought in to implement, than the players available to Klinsmann on the full national side. But tomorrow evening when the U.S. takes on Canada in Puebla, style points won’t mean much. It will be all about the result, and if the U.S. plays to their potential, it will all end in a trip to the U20 World Cup this summer in Turkey.
In tomorrow’s late quarterfinal matchup at 9:00pm ET, Cuba should be too explosive for Costa Rica. Wednesday at 6:00pm ET, Panama is the pick here over El Salvador and in the late game, expect Mexico to be too strong for Jamaica.