Give the keys to Paxton.
The United States Under-20 team played well enough to win against Ukraine on Friday afternoon, but they ultimately lost 2-1. If you missed the game: The US saw a lot of the ball, didn’t use it well enough and made two defensive errors that Ukraine punished. It wasn’t a poor performance. The US would have won the same game on another day.
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t tune into this U-20 team to see that. I turned it on to see progress; specifically, dominance of games by using the ball. Games where the US doesn’t just play well enough to win, but so well that they can’t lose.
The only way this group can get there is to give Paxton Pomykal the keys.
Head coach Tab Ramos started Pomykal on the left wing against Ukraine. Throughout the game, the FC Dallas midfielder would switch with Timothy Weah and move up top to play striker. Pomykal played fine; he may have even been the team’s best player on the day. But you can’t drive the bus from left wing or center striker.
And the US need Pomykal to drive the bus.
He is the team’s best, and for the type of soccer I tuned in to watch, most important player. I realize not everyone will agree that Pomykal is the best player in the group. Weah has played bigger European games; Alex Mendez is more graceful on the ball; Chris Richards probably has a higher ceiling. Right now, in this moment in time, Pomykal is the best and most important player to the group. His technical ability, his energy and his aggression separate him from the other teenagers on the team. He’s more prepared to control a World Cup game. And it hurts the group when he isn’t put in his best spot: center midfield.
Ramos has used Pomykal on the left wing throughout the FCD academy product’s time with the Under-20s. To a certain extent, I get it. Pomykal has the skill to take players 1v1 and produce goals. He has the attributes of a modern winger or a No. 10 – equally as industrious as creative.
But I think the danger is putting the wrong word first there. Pomykal isn’t a dribbler or playmaker who can pass and defend. He’s a passer who can create. If you were to list his attributes like a food label lists ingredients, with the most prevalent quantity first, Pomykal’s sheet would read: passing ability, industriousness, aggression, creativity, flair. And, even if you don’t think Pomykal is the best overall player on the team, he’s the best passer on the team. His ability to get on the ball and connect his passes would bring out the best in Mendez and Weah.
I’m not sure you can be a passing team at the World Cup level with your best passer away from the middle of the field. If you’re a passing team that doesn’t pass that well – one that doesn’t change rhythm, that doesn’t break lines, that doesn’t take the ball in tough spots – you’re going to lose.
The US might/should win some games at the World Cup regardless of who plays where. They played well enough on Friday to find results. I don’t think they can reach their potential, though, unless they give Paxton the keys.