PUEBLA, Mexico – The meticulous preparation for the US Under-20s – with all the camps, foreign tours and scrimmages that go with it – is over.
On Monday, it’s down to business when Tab Ramos’ side kicks off the U-20 CONCACAF Championship here against Haiti in the Estadio Olímpico (6:30 pm ET, Fox Soccer). The USA are one of 12 teams in the central Mexican city that are vying for one of the four semifinal spots that guarantee a spot at the main event in Turkey in June.
There is pressure to avoid early elimination after the recent flops by the US Olympic team and the last US Under-20 team, but Ramos is encouraged by his squad's preparation in the lead-up and he is taking the tournament one step at a time.
“I’m confident we’ve prepared the group as well as we can and I think we have good players here,” Ramos told MLSsoccer.com last week. “Obviously, our opponents are going to be difficult as well, so at this point, we focus on the first game and take it from there.”
That first Group A match comes against a tricky Haiti side on Monday and Ramos is expecting a difficult challenge from the Caribbean side.
“Haiti is a very athletic team. They’re a very strong right-sided team where they go forward pretty well,” Ramos said in a recent conference call with US media members. “There’s no question that Haiti will make things difficult for us.”
Ramos will have to do without defenders John Anthony Brooks and Will Packwood for the tournament, meaning defensive midfielder Caleb Stanko is likely to slot into the center of defense, possibly alongside Colorado’s Shane O’Neill, who has spent a large part of his youth career in midfield.
With the backline presenting challenges, Ramos points to his team’s attacking prowess as being its main strength, as well as the players’ comfort and ability on the ball.
“I think we have good players here, especially on the offensive side,” he said. “I think we can be a team that can do some damage.”
There is a strong MLS influence on show in the US squad with LA's Jose Villarreal likely to play an important role in the attack and midfielders Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew) and Mikey Lopez (Sporting Kansas City) also hoping to shine in Puebla.
Ramos has tasked Mexico-based trio Benji Joya, Daniel Cuevas and Juan Pablo Ocegueda with helping teammates adapt to the conditions, the style of soccer they are likely to experience in the tournament and in keeping their cool when confronted with home fans likely to be supporting the rival.
“Those three guys are not only great players, but great people,” explained Ramos. “They have good charisma with their teammates and they share all their experiences down here, so I think that’s a tremendous plus for us. “
A win for the US in the first game against Haiti would represent a massive step to qualifying to the next round, with only the top two teams from each three-team group advancing to the quarterfinals.
The US meet Costa Rica on Friday in their second and final Group A match. If the Stars and Stripes advance, they will face Canada, Cuba or Nicaragua in the quarterfinals, which shape up as one-game playoffs for a ticket to the U-20 World Cup.
Tom Marshall covers Americans based in Latin America for MLSsoccer.com.