US U-20s ready to defend Concacaf crown as tournament hits crunchtime

US U-20s - Celebration - 2018 Concacaf U-20 Championship

It’s about to get real for the US Under-20 men’s national team at the 2018 Concacaf Under-20 Championship.

After cruising through the initial group stage with a perfect record and a goal differential of +37, World Cup qualification is on the line for head coach Tab Ramos and his charges starting on Friday.

A new format for this year’s U-20 Concacaf tournament saw 34 of the federation’s 41 nations involved from the start. Divided into four groups of six and two groups of five, the first-place team from each group advanced to a second group stage, which would determine qualification. It was quite the twist for the defending champions.

Five games in nine days later, the United States have easily handled the likes of Suriname, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago. Sauntering away with a first-place finish in Group A, the next two games against Costa Rica (Friday) and Honduras (Monday) will determine whether the US U-20s make the trip to Poland next year.

Ahead of the qualification stage, Ramos made a trio of changes to the original US roster named prior to the start of the competition. Allowed up to six swaps between group stages per the roster rules, Ramos made half that many, adding Chris Richards (Bayern Munich on loan from FC Dallas), Sebastian Soto (Hannover 96) and Sergiño Dest (Ajax). Exiting the squad were Anthony Fontana, Griffin Dorsey and Isaac Angking.

Given the nature of the initial group stage, it’s difficult to know what to expect from this US squad as they turn the page. The goal totals are gaudy, but the competition certainly was a far cry from what the team is likely to face against their two Group G opponents. Eleven different players found the back of the net, and the back five were rarely tested for large portions of the first five matches.

A clearer picture of the United States’ level is sure to emerge in the upcoming games. Despite the number of goals, there were stretches of various games that featured hasty, direct play from the back, and moments where the team struggled to connect into the attacking third. For example, even with a 3-0 lead against Trinidad & Tobago, US defenders would lump it forward instead of finding the feet of a teammate.

At the end of the day, they got the job done, with plenty of goals. And it’s worth pointing out that they played arguably their best game of the initial group stage in last Friday’s 7-0 demolition of Suriname. Facing a much steeper challenge in the form of Honduras and Costa Rica, these next two games could be much closer from a US perspective.

Friday night’s game comes after Costa Rica and Honduras drew 1-1 in Tuesday’s Group G opener. The top two teams from each group secure a spot at the U-20 World Cup in Poland, with the first-place team securing a spot in the final. Tuesday’s result means that one win should be enough – though the US U-20s surely enter this stage with higher hopes.

Key players

US U-20s ready to defend Concacaf crown as tournament hits crunchtime -

Chris Richards (center) with Bayern | USA Today Sports Images

M Alex Mendez – Arguably the best player during the first five group matches, the central midfielder was in dominant form when he was on the pitch. It went beyond his ability to score goals, as Mendez reads the game in superb fashion, and his passing always seemed to open up space in behind the opposition defense.

D Chris Richards – The FC Dallas Homegrown signing (on loan to Bayern Munich) should slot right into the starting lineup after arriving in Florida. It’s been a sensational rise for Richards over the past year and a half, as he spent the summer of 2017 winning a U.S. Soccer Development Academy national championship with Texans SC Houston. A commanding presence at the back, his addition to the team provides another option for Ramos to deploy.

F Ulysses Llanez – Outside of Mendez, Llanez was right up there as one of the best players from the first group games. Talented with the ball, able to score goals and create from the flanks, Llanez was unstoppable from wide areas. Replicating that same form against Costa Rica and Honduras in these games would go a long way for the U-20s.

F Sebastian Soto – Another incoming addition to the roster, Soto becomes the primary option at No. 9 for Ramos. While Justin Rennicks enjoyed a strong stint in the group stage, few U.S. youth strikers are earning the same kind of buzz as Soto. After joining Hannover earlier this year, Soto’s scored nine goals and earned a call-up to train with the German club’s first team. His ability to finish plays in the box will be key, though it’s also a chance for US fans to get a look at another talent battling his way up the ranks in Europe.

Mexico eye Group H dominance

Like the US, El Tri enjoyed a goalfest during the initial group stage. Buoyed in part by Chivas de Guadalajara striker Jose Macias – who currently leads the tournament’s Golden Boot race with 10 tallies to his name – Mexico also return to the field on Friday, taking on El Salvador. Club America’s rising star Diego Lainez, who made his full team debut against Uruguay earlier this year, is also included on the roster.

Bested by the US at the 2017 tournament, it would be a surprise to see El Tri fall short against either Panama or El Salvador (Panama edged El Salvador in the first Group H match 1-0 on Tuesday). Mexico did have a hiccup in the group stage, drawing 2-2 against a determined Jamaica side, but are clear favorites to top this group.

US Roster for 2018 Concacaf U-20 Championship Qualification Stage

GOALKEEPERS (2): 12-David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake; Oxnard, Calif.), 1-Brady Scott (FC Koln/GER; Petaluma, Calif.)

DEFENDERS (8): 22-Sergiño Dest (Ajax/NED; Almere-Stad, Netherlands), 3-Chris Gloster (Hannover 96/GER; South Orange, N.J.), 2-Jaylin Lindsey (Sporting KC; Charlotte, N.C.), 4-Mark McKenzie (Philadelphia Union; Bear, Del.), 14-Manny Perez (N.C. State; Garner, N.C.), 5-Matthew Real (Philadelphia Union; Drexel Hill, Pa.), 26-Chris Richards (Bayern Munich/GER; Hoover, Ala.), 19-Sam Rogers (Seattle Sounders FC; Seattle, Wash.)

MIDFIELDERS (6): 20-Frankie Amaya (UCLA; Santa Ana, Calif.), 16-Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy; Lompoc, Calif.), 8-Alex Mendez (SC Freiburg/GER; Los Angeles, Calif.), 10-Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas; Highland Village, Tex.), 6-Brandon Servania (FC Dallas; Birmingham, Ala.), 7-Juan Pablo Torres (K.S.C. Lokeren Oost-Vlaanderen/BEL; Lilburn, Ga.)

FORWARDS (4): 17-Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC; Detroit, Mich.), 11-Ulysses Llanez (Unattached; Lynwood, Calif.), 9-Justin Rennicks (Indiana Univ.; Hamilton, Mass.), 23-Sebastian Soto (Hannover 96/GER; San Diego, Calif.)