USA begin U-20 World Cup knockouts vs. New Zealand: "We can win it all"

USA U-20 Rof16

The knockout stage of the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup has arrived and the United States are in win-or-go-home territory.

It really is that simple for head coach Mikey Varas’ team, which is readying for a Round of 16 test Tuesday afternoon against New Zealand (1:30 pm ET | FS2, Universo).

They’re also not short on confidence after topping Group B as one of two 3W-0L-0D teams at the prestigious youth tournament, only joined by hosts Argentina in that respect.

“We all believe we can win it all,” said Philadelphia Union midfielder Jack McGlynn as camp shifts from San Juan to Mendoza.

“That’s why we’re here and that’s why we’ve done so well so far. We all believe in each other to the fullest and trust each other on the field, so I think as long as we keep doing that we can go all the way."

The US, should they win, would advance to a June 4 quarterfinal against the winner of Gambia vs. Uruguay. Accomplishing that would also book the program’s fourth straight quarterfinal appearance at a U-20 World Cup, though Varas isn’t adapting the historical lens.

“It’s important that we don’t attach ourselves to the success of the past cycles,” said Varas, a former FC Dallas assistant coach. “Those were those guys’ stories and the past staffs’ stories. They did a tremendous job.

“What they did was they motivate a group to want to push the boundaries even more. Our job is to make sure we go out and put in a performance that gives the best chance of winning the next game and that’s it.”

The US have grown throughout the U-20 World Cup, beating Ecuador (1-0), Fiji (3-0) and Slovakia (2-0) across a week-long span. That ensured they’d face a third-place finisher, which ultimately became New Zealand after they went 1W-1L-1D in Group A and most recently dropped a 5-0 decision to Argentina.

A boost comes as well, with former D.C. United attacker Kevin Paredes and one-time Sporting Kansas City academy midfielder Rokas Pukštas joining after pre-arranged agreements with their European teams. Paredes is arriving from midtable German Bundesliga side Wolfsburg, while Pukštas just helped Hajduk Split win the Croatian Cup.

Even without that aforementioned duo, the US have thrived behind a bevy of players who are making a high impact at club level, either in MLS or abroad. San Jose Earthquakes forward Cade Cowell has two goals, plus Atlanta United attacker Caleb Wiley and Austin FC midfielder Owen Wolff are proving instrumental.

“First-team minutes are always important, but more than first-team minutes it’s impact at the first-team level,” said Varas. “I think I mentioned a few months back, it’s great steps forward we’ve made as a country in general with so many young players playing in MLS and so many coaches being brave enough to give them those minutes. Then it’s those players taking advantage of the minutes and making an impact.”

Added McGlynn, who’s played in MLS Cup and a Concacaf Champions League semifinal within the last year: “Everybody playing at a high level with their clubs really helps when you come here. I think everyone came in here game sharp, game fit so I think that helped us get off to a great start in the tournament. Playing in those big games with your club really gets rid of the pressure when you play them here. You’re used to it.”

Considered a favorite against New Zealand, now it’s time for the US to keep growing as the stakes increase. Big-time performances for USMNT prospects like goalkeeper Gaga Slonina (Chelsea FC) and center back Josh Wynder (Louisville City) may be needed, and ditto for Cowell, McGlynn, Wiley and others.

Phrased another way, Varas hopes everyone can “lift their levels one to two percent” to extend their stay in South America and show the US U-20s’ development.

“You come here with pressure from day one,” said Varas. “You don’t win games in your group stage, you go home. Now you’re in the Round of 16 and it becomes even a little bit more real. You don’t win the game, you go home.

“But the boys have done a great job of handling pressure in the past and the present. They’ll continue to stay focused on the process that we have in place and be prepared to make sure when we step on the field we give everything.”