The US U-20s played a pretty thrilling, pretty frustrating, pretty revealing opener in the U-20 World Cup early Monday morning in Incheon, South Korea. They conceded twice in the first 10 minutes, they scored twice on either side of the halftime break, they survived a howler from the 'keeper, they got an equalizer in the 94th minute, seconds before the final whistle.
They drew Ecuador 3-3. All-in-all it's a pretty good result – Ecuador and the US are group favorites, and how it shakes out from here should come down to goal differential over the next two games against Saudi Arabia and Senegal. The Senegalese sit atop Group F after the first round of games thanks to a 2-0 win over the Saudis.
That's the lay of the land. Here are my observations from game one:
Tab Ramos earned some dap for picking Josh Sargent, who had the first and second US goals. The 17-year-old Sargent is playing up a level after starring with the US U-17s, and while he struggled at times with Ecuador's physicality, he's smart as hell off the ball and a lethal finisher when he gets a look.
Luca De La Torre bounced back after struggling in the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, which the US won. He had an assist on the opener after a smart and aggressive dribble into the heart of the Ecuador midfield, and he scored the equalizer opportunistically from the top of the box. It was nice to see him rise to the occasion.
De La Torre turns 19 tomorrow and is entering the last year of his contract with Fulham. A strong performance here – and to be clear, this would've been classed as a strong performance even without the boxscore stats – could go a long way toward boosting his future prospects.
Gedion Zelalem did not have a good 34 minutes before being subbed for a non-contact injury. His career arc, from Arsenal hopeful to sometime starter in the Dutch 2nd tier, tells the story pretty well.
He really has just one skill: The ability to get on the ball and slow the game down. It's useful in certain contexts, but not often enough to make him anything more than a luxury player for the US, or for his club teams. If he could wrestle control of the tempo and then turn that into attack, he'd be a much better prospect. But he doesn't do that, and he doesn't really defend, either.
Derrick Jones, meanwhile, defends like a madman. The game changed when the Union d-mid replaced Zelalem thanks to his field coverage and his presence in front of the backline, which allowed the rest of the team to go forward with more confidence. I'll be disappointed if Jones doesn't start the next couple of games.
Ecuador have a ton of talent, and the one who obviously stood out the most was attacker Bryan Cabezas, who's already playing for the full Ecuadoran national team and in Serie A with Atalanta.
Cabezas went to town on the right side of the US defense for the first 30 minutes.
Squad selection continues to be an issue for the US, particularly at fullback. Remember Boyd Okwuonu over DeAndre Yedlin a few years back, or the whole Shaq Moore experience? Aaron Herrera may end up seeing his name added to the list after this one. On the first goal in particular he was caught in two minds, neither pressed up on the guy receiving the ball and releasing the pass, nor deep enough to cut out the through ball. That ended up stranding CB Tommy Redding twice.
This is the exact reason Keegan Rosenberry was benched this year for Philly. Fullbacks have to read the game faster and stay connected.
Some credit is due to Herrera for figuring things out around the 30th minute and coming into the game on both sides of the ball (he should've had an assist but Tyler Adams fluffed the chance).
Still, I remain miffed at the omission of Reggie Cannon at RB and Marco Farfan at LB. They should be in this squad (and so should Jackson Yueill in midfield).
I also think squad selection is an issue at goalkeeper, where Jonathan Klinsmann's continued inconsistency and decision-making were both doubleplusungood.
On the second goal, he gets beat near post. On the third goal, he takes three touches then passes the ball directly to Cabezas, who happily puts it in the net. It was a true howler of the "SportsCenter Not Top 10" variety.
The biggest problem, though, came on the first goal. To be clear: Herrera is most at fault on that one, and Redding did not cover himself in glory. But Klinsmann's attempt to stop the breakaway betrayed a lack of fundamentals and an over-reliance upon his athleticism – which is an advantage with diminishing returns at this level of the game.
Goalkeepers are taught to come off the line, stay big and keep your feet. If you do that you give yourself a chance to make a spectacular play, but you also keep yourself in the play. ZERO goalkeeper coaches in the world would teach you to come out and flail with a lame slide tackle that 1) has a low probability of success, 2) even if you are successful, is as likely to push the ball into the path of another opponent as it is a teammate, 3) rightfully would have been whistled a penalty, and 4) removes you entirely from any follow-up scrum.
I actually have sympathy for Klinsmann's mistake on the third goal, which happens from time to time – at every level – to 'keepers who are told to always play the ball out of the back at all costs. I am befuddled, though, by what he did on the first goal.
Neither Cameron Carter-Vickers nor Justen Glad played. Hopefully they are just shaking off rust and will be worked into the lineup over the next 180 minutes, otherwise I'm not sure what the point of bringing them was.
Brooks Lennon can cross the hell out of the ball. He is Ralston-esque, and this is a weapon RSL will have to make better use of when he comes back from the tournament.
Bottom line is that the US got a deserved draw against the second-place CONMEBOL finishers that would've been a win if there'd been barely adequate performances – not great, just adequate – from a few spots on the field. I'm frustrated by that (obviously), but also fairly hopeful given that Klinsmann and Herrera probably can't play worse, that Jones will likely go from the beginning next time out, and that the US improved significantly over the course of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship.
If they do the same here, a repeat of the 2015 group's run to the quarterfinal isn't out of the question.