The US U-20s have played their two toughest opponents in their first two Group F games, and they have four points from the 180 minutes now in the books. They've done so despite injuries and a little bit of squad rotation, and they've done so while playing better soccer in Game 2 than they did in Game 1.
Game 2 was this morning's 1-0 win over a tough and committed, but ultimately outclassed Senegal side. The US were the better team, Tyler Adams ran the show in central midfield, Cameron Carter-Vickers made his return to U-20 glory, Josh Sargent got another goal, and only a disastrous result against Saudi Arabia in the third game would/could prevent the US from moving into the knockout rounds.
I don't think that "disastrous result" will come, by the way. The US are too solid defensively now that Derrick Jones is sweeping up in front of the central defense, and right back Aaron Herrera, who was victimized so thoroughly in the first 20 minutes against Ecuador, has looked mostly fine in the 160 minutes (save a few early giveaways today) since.
This is in keeping with how Tab Ramos's teams generally evolve. While there are aesthetic and squad selection issues, Ramos gets his groups – without fail – to improve over the course of any given tournament. If that's what is happening here, the US are in very good shape for the game(s) to come.
A few bullet-points:
• Adams was the Man of the Match, and his ability to run the show from deep in central midfield while covering box-to-box even got some folks making N'Golo Kante cracks.
Adams is a tireless but not pointless runner who uses his ability to shrink the field to good effect. Watching this game, it was impossible to miss how many times he was able to basically cut the field in half defensively, and force Senegal into making low-probability forays down dark alleys. There's a level of shrewdness to how he plays that's beyond the ken of the typical 18-year-old.
There are also moments like this:
The vision and audacity and skill there are quite a package. He has the speed and control to run away from the midfield, the savvy to drive the ball into the heart of the collapsing defense, and then the stones to attempt and on-the-move through-ball to a streaking attacker.
Even when these plays don't come off (and you can see that one didn't), they 1) set the tone for your team, and 2) put your opponent under a ton of stress.
• Carter-Vickers has uniformly struggled above the U-20 level, both in late 2015 with the US U-23s in the ultimately failed Olympic qualifying attempt, and any time he's taken the field for Tottenham against grown men. The improvement trajectory for the now-19-year-old has been non-linear.
But damn, does he still absolutely boss kids on the U-20 level. Carter-Vickers was imposing and rugged, and put his ridiculous closing speed to use on more than one occasion. Hopefully he's ready to go again against Saudi Arabia in a few days – there's a chance he won't be, since he was injured the last couple of months and isn't at peak fitness.
• The same re: fitness can be said of Justen Glad, who made a six-minute cameo at the end of the game. With those two, and another strong performance from Erik Palmer-Brown, and Tommy Redding on the depth chart (he's better than he looked against Ecuador), Ramos is spoiled for choice in central defense.
• Jones wasn't flawless – he had a couple of early giveaways that Union fans will recognize. But his future as a rangy and physical destroyer should be pretty secure. He also showed a little bit of an ability to swap places on the fly with Adams and the third member of the midfield triumvirate, D.C. United academy kid Eryk Williamson.
The defensive interplay between those three gave Senegal almost no real purchase in the center part of the pitch, even as they were semi-desperately sending numbers forward in the second half. Senegal took 15 shots, but put only two on goal and the plurality of credit for that has to go to the midfield rather than the backline.
That said: This US team could really use Jackson Yueill, specifically as a sub for Williamson. Yueill is a more incisive passer, and as Senegal were pushing numbers forward there were multiple missed opportunities for the US to jump into transition that weren't taken.
• Jonathan Klinsmann wasn't really tested in goal, as those numbers above suggest.
• Josh Sargent is clinical:
He finds space in and around the 18 at a level beyond his 17 years. That understanding of where he can be most dangerous, and then the composure to turn that danger into production is what teams, worldwide, pay for. The kid's going places.
Luca De La Torre (who was otherwise quiet) had the primary assist, and yes that's Adams pushed all the way up for the clever, backheeled secondary assist on the play.
So the US are now, officially, sitting pretty. But be aware that even though I'm pretty confident about the US chances against the KSA, Sunday's match is no mere formality. The Saudis countered Ecuador to death in a 2-1 win (they were outshot 24-7, and out-possessed 63-37) this morning, which leaves the US in control of both their own destiny, and the group standings overall. A win, and Group F is theirs.
But that result is a useful reminder that even though the hardest work is done, the hard work isn't. Ecuador is good, and Saudi Arabia beat them. As impressive and talented as this US team has been, the same could still very easily happen to them.