The US lost to a better team in the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup on Saturday night. Venezuela won 2-1, which was a result that flattered a game and gritty but ultimately overrun and overmatched US team.
So it goes.
A few takeaways:
• Venezuela have been the best team in this tournament, and the US are the first team to have scored against them. They were bigger, stronger, faster and more disciplined than the US, just as they were against Germany and Mexico and Japan. There's no particular shame of any sort in losing to a team this good.
They were good at every level. The obvious star was Aldaberto Peñaranda, who scored the first goal, and Sergio Cordova, who gave RSL left back Danilo Acosta some serious hell down that flank from literally the first minute. Both of those guys were eye-catching.
Less eye-catching but as or more important was the play of the Venezuelan midfield, led by NYCFC's Yangel Herrera, which dominated their US counterparts. They weren't overly creative, but they were quick and – this is important – organized. When they pressed it was with good purpose and better effect, and it knocked the US out of any sort of rhythm from literally the first minute.
• The US came into the game after Tab Ramos made a pair of substitutions, bringing Portland's Jeremy Ebobisse in as a target forward for Tyler Adams, and then bringing in Atlanta United academy product Lagos Kunga in for Josh Sargent.
Sargent's great, and when the US midfield is controlling play, he is an asset. But when your midfield is getting run off the pitch, clever off-the-ball movement in the attacking third from your only true forward has limited positive effect. Sometimes you need to have a strong No. 9 to hoof the ball to and relieve some pressure.
That's what Ebobisse provided, and it's not a coincidence that A) the US played better once he was on, and B) he ended up getting what turned out to be a consolation goal. Other than goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann (who was great), Ebobisse is the only guy who could come out of this game feeling like he showed his best.
• Kunga's 1v1 ability gave Venezuela fits, especially since he had plenty of room to work in with Ebobisse often occupying both Venezuelan center backs. Eliminating guys off the dribble is obviously a worthwhile asset, but his inability to complete plays with a telling pass or at least a look on goal was disappointing.
• Why did Ramos not sub more liberally against New Zealand once the US went up 2- or 3-0? Sargent, Tyler Adams, Luca De La Torre and Erik Palmer-Brown, to name four, pretty clearly ran out of gas for the US. Venezuela were smart to press from the first minute, and while Ramos deserves a ton of credit for getting the US to the quarterfinals for a second straight tournament, he's shouldn't go uncriticized here.
• Set pieces. Suddenly the US are not so good at defending them, at both the senior level and the U-20 level. The eventual game-winner for Venezuela came off a corner, which was one of about six the US could've conceded on restarts.
More disappointing still was Palmer-Brown's inability to bury a wide-open header from six yards out, four minutes into second-half stoppage with the game scoreless. It would have been the game-winner.
• This is the third straight cycle in which the US were eliminated by a team that just seemed to dwarf them physically. Last time it was eventual champions Serbia, and the time before it was eventual champions France. So at least they're losing to quality competition.
• Even with all the above, this tournament was a qualified success for the US. You don't make it to back-to-back U-20 World Cup quarterfinals by accident; when that kind of success is sustained over multiple cycles, it means you're building something legitimate and repeatable.
I do think the roster could've been picked better and managed better – lack of speed at the fullback slots was killer, as was a lack of creativity in central midfield, as was lack of squad rotation earlier in the tournament. Playing against Venezuela would've been hard under any circumstances, but playing against them on just three days' rest (Venezuela had five), and with most of your important players out of gas... I'm actually stunned the score stayed respectable. This one could've gotten out of hand.
But it didn't. The US had another good tournament. Two in a row makes it a streak, and given how talented the U-17s are, I don't see that streak snapping any time soon.