This is a France team that entered the tournament as heavy favorites. A France team with players getting significant minutes as teenagers for Borussia Dortmund, Marseille, Paris St. Germain, Eintracht Frankfurt, Borussia Monchengladbach and Fiorentina.
And the US won.
Real Salt Lake product Sebastian Soto scored the opening goal after a pass from his youth teammate Richie Ledezma. France rallied back with two goals to take the lead. Then Soto scored again on a slipped pass from New York Red Bulls product Tim Weah to equalize. Then, in the 83rd minute, New England Revolution Homegrown forward Justin Rennicks capitalized on a France miscue and put away the game winner. It was one of the most exhilarating, painful and wrenching 90 minutes you could experience.
In the end, the US booked a spot in the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup for the third straight time. The US is the only country in the world to have accomplished that across that span.
In full disclosure, I had been skeptical of the last two tournaments — despite making the last eight, the US has had pretty mixed results overall. Losses to Ukraine and Venezuela; draws with Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, and Serbia; and wins over New Zealand, Senegal, Myanmar, and Colombia. You could maneuver those to tell whatever narrative you want. The France win is the first real statement victory.
It’s an amazing accomplishment and feeds the soul like hot chocolate on a cold night.
The performance looked like a blend of old and new. The US showed moments that support why so many followers are so excited about the group, and feel like the player pool is stronger than ever. FC Dallas midfielder Paxton Pomykal nicked balls in midfield and hit dangerous passes forward; Ledezma glided past players; Chris Gloster locked down every 1v1; Chris Richards looked like he might have been the most composed player on the field. You could go down the line and talk about a unique, intoxicating quality about every player on the field.
At the same time, the US won, mainly, because they had no problem playing like a 2009 US men’s team. They buckled in, fought through adversity, and competed like hell. France had the better of the play for large stretches. Les Bleus didn’t completely dominate the game, but they had more of the ball and created more chances. The US stifled the French as much as they could and waited for their moments. When the moments came, the US took them.
Tab Ramos deserves credit for creating those moments. When the US started to lose a grip on the game around the 60th minute, Ramos made two vital subs. Uly Llanez entered the game on the left and Rennicks replaced Ledezma at center mid. Rennicks, in particular, proved to be the game-changer. Rennicks isn’t a natural midfielder, but his energy and aggressiveness disrupted France and provided the US an energy boost. Ramos took a chance, something he’s been criticized for, and it paid off.
The US will take on Ecuador on Saturday. Amidst the excitement, there’s a word of caution. In 2007, the US beat Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani’s Uruguay team in the Round of 16 only to lose to Austria in the quarters.
Guys, please don’t do that to us again.