Game 1, a 2-1 loss to Ukraine: “Meh. Not great, not bad - certainly some things to build on.”
Game 2, a 2-0 win over Nigeria: “This is everything I’ve ever wanted from an American men’s soccer team.”
Game 3, a 1-0 win over Qatar: “They won? I threw the remote through the TV at about the 40 minute mark.”
From mediocre to very good to very bad, the United States did enough in the group stage to secure second place in Group D and qualify into the Second Round the Under-20 World Cup. The US will likely take on tournament favorite France on Tuesday.
Things we learned about the US from the group stage:
- When everything/everyone clicks, the team can play gorgeous soccer. Everyone is comfortable on the ball, and everyone can attack from multiple angles. The wingers can tuck central or stay wide; the outside backs can overlap or underlap; and all three center midfielders can drop deep or drive forward. The game against Nigeria was one of the most exhilarating attacking performances that a US men’s national team at any level has ever played.
- With that said ... holy crap, does the team need Paxton Pomykal at center midfield. It was not random that the team's best performance came when Pomykal - who played on the wing in the first game and got rested in the third game - played in the middle against Nigeria. His instinct on where to move and what to do with the ball sets the pace for the group.
- And when that pace isn’t right ... it gets precarious quickly. If the team takes punches, they struggle to stay standing. Every soccer game has momentum swings, and every team needs to know how to manage those swings. Instead of controlling the ball for a little, you focus on controlling the space. When the US lost control of the ball, though, they also allowed opposing players to get in dangerous gaps. They are a team who clearly has inserted the idea of “playing on the front foot” into their minds, but they also need to get more comfortable when they are pushed back.
- Hopefully Thursday’s win over Qatar will help with that ... as they learned that they can win despite being second-best. That statement isn’t an attempt to put makeup on a pig. The win over Qatar was more “lucky” than “gritty.” That distinction won’t matter to the players, though. The idea of “We can win when we are getting outplayed” has now been inserted into their brains; it can function as a rallying cry when the game isn’t going as planned. Stay calm, stay in it - we can find a way. It’s likely that France will control the game on Tuesday, so this little nugget could be important.
Questions that need to get answered before the next game:
- Can Tab Ramos find the right starting XI? The team had a pretty clear framework through the qualifying games last November, then in the first game of the World Cup, Ramos experimented; he opted to play without a true center striker. In the third group game, too, Ramos experimented; he put Mark McKenzie, usually a center back, at right back. I didn’t mind the logic behind either decision. It has to be said, though, that they both turned out to be the wrong decisions that almost cost his team the tournament. His next lineup decisions will garner plenty of eyes, both for their impact on a huge knockout game and what they could mean for a potential move to the professional ranks after the World Cup.
- And the first selection conversation among the coaching staff should be: Who plays center midfield? Chris Durkin and Alex Mendez, who both started all three group games, are suspended for the next match due to yellow card accumulation. Brandon Servania, who started the first and third games, hasn’t looked as sharp as he did in the Concacaf Championship. Pomykal figures to play one of the midfield roles. I’d guess Richie Ledezma gets a start, too, after he looked good in his cameo against Qatar. The last and deepest midfield spot? Does Ramos give FC Dallas’ Edwin Cerillo his first international game?
- Similarly ... Who plays right back? Sergino Dest, who plays for Ajax’s reserve team, has been breathtaking in attack. He’s consistently dangerous when he flies down the right. But he has struggled defensively in both of his starts, to the point that he could be a liability against France. It’d be a shame to lose his attacking ability from the starting lineup, but McKenzie or Julian Araujo could be the more reliable options at right back.