Paxton Pomykal in the rain - FC Dallas

The Under-20 World Cup kicks off this week in Poland with arguably the best US Under-20 national team roster ever assembled, ready to compete against some of the top talents in the world.

Head coach Tab Ramos is preparing to lead the US in the competition for the fourth time, and as Concacaf champions for the second straight cycle.

At the start of May, Ramos named a roster of 21 players set to compete in Group D, aiming to improve on two straight quarterfinal finishes in 2015 and 2017. Ten of the players on the roster hail from MLS teams, with early season standouts like Edwin Cerrillo and Paxton Pomykal among the contenders to carve out key roles.

A familiar style

Ramos has favored a press-intensive style of play throughout his time in charge, looking to win the ball high up and the field and turn that into scoring chances. This year’s group should be similar to past Ramos teams: a 4-3-3 formation, pressing high and looking to control games and create chances in that fashion. He has a dynamic and exciting group of attackers to choose from, with Tim Weah, Konrad de la Fuente, Justin Rennicks, Ulysses Llanez and Ayo Akinola among the wide options to complement Sebastian Soto in the middle.

Defensive questions to answer

Previewing the US national team at the 2019 U-20 World Cup -

Chris Richards (center) in action for Bayern Munich. | USA Today Images

Provided the attack clicks and the US show that they are capable of scoring goals, the group’s defensive quality is going to determine how far it can go in the tournament. Chris Richards is potentially the team’s most important player, as the Bayern Munich center back has the intelligence and athletic ability to put out fires where needed.

As the team presses high, if they lose out in transition moments, that could put pressure on the back line and leave them exposed. One of Cerrillo, Chris Durkin or Brandon Servania are likely to be on the field as well, shielding the team’s defense and providing a helping hand at the back.

Who lines up next to Richards is the other part of the question. Matt Real, while more of a left back, saw time centrally in qualifying. Aboubacar Keita, the Columbus Crew SCHomegrown signing who is on loan at Richmond Kickers, is another. Mark McKenzie is still working his way back to full fitness from an appendectomy as well, but should be in the mix soon. Sergino Dest and Chris Gloster are the leading candidates to start on the right and left, respectively, providing support on both sides of the ball.

Group ambitions

Back in 2017, the US U-20s won Group F, advancing to a favorable Round of 16 matchup against New Zealand. The ambition heading into the 2019 edition of the competition, where they’ve been drawn into Group D with Ukraine, Nigeria and Qatar, is the same: Win the group. That would see the United States advance to a knockout game against a third-place team from Groups B, E or F, which is likely a more favorable opponent.

A second-place finish means a round-of-16 clash against the first-place team in Group E; barring a huge shock or surprise, that is almost certain to be France, considered to be one of the favorites of the competition. That means getting off to a good start against Ukraine in Friday’s group opener is huge, as that provides the ideal platform to progress as deep in the tournament as possible.

Key players

D Chris Richards – As noted above, the Alabama native’s presence in the backline is huge. He’ll need to stay fit and avoid picking up too many yellow cards, as there is a notable drop-off in quality between him and the other options in central defense.

F Timothy Weah – It’s been an up-and-down club season for Weah, who spent the first half of the 2018-19 season hardly playing for Paris Saint-Germain, before playing in fits and starts on loan at Celtic FC in Scotland. Like others on the roster, he’s a versatile player, capable of lining up as the central striker or on either wing. His desire to play at the U-20 World Cup is notable, and he’ll provide an important presence and experience on and off the field.

M Alex Mendez – Winner of the Golden Ball at the U-20 Concacaf Championship, where he scored eight goals, Mendez heads into the World Cup in good form. A smooth, left-footed central midfielder who can pick a pass, smash home from distance and deliver dangerous set pieces on a consistent basis, the LA Galaxy academy product has recently scored some spectacular goals for SC Freiburg’s A-Junioren side. That threat is going to be massive for the US, whether it’s unlocking an opposing defense with his passing range or offering up a chance to score from set pieces.

F Konrad de la Fuente – Something of a mystery to US fans, the FC Barcelona prospect is one of a host of exciting options on the wing. Between him and Uly Llanez, Ramos has a pair of wide attackers that can take defenders on one-v-one, which can certainly create chances in transition moments during the game.

M Paxton Pomykal – Before picking up a hamstring injury, Pomykal had been firmly in the middle of a breakout season with FC Dallas. Assuming he’s healthy and available for selection, his two-way ability in either central midfield or potentially on one of the flanks can create space and opportunities for his teammates.