It took a loss to wake up, but the U.S. Under-20 national team rebounded from its World Cup-opening loss to Ukraine with the exact type of performance expected from the most talented U.S. Under-20 team ever assembled.
That label looked like a mistake after the Americans dropped a disappointing 2-1 decision to Ukraine on Friday, but Tab Ramos' team looked like a much more polished and potent team in Monday's convincing 2-0 win against Nigeria.
Several players who were shaky against Ukraine improved against Nigeria, while Ramos also did a better job, inserting Sebastian Soto into the starting lineup after leaving him out of the starting 11 against Ukraine and deploying Tim Weah as a central striker.
That move paid major dividends. Soto provided the presence in the penalty area the U.S. attack lacked against Ukraine, while Weah looked more comfortable operating on the left wing. Paxton Pomykal was able to combine with Alex Mendez in central midfield while Konrad De La Fuente worked the right wing well due to the Nigerian defense having to keep tabs on Soto.
The Americans dominated possession in their first match, but what was different against Nigeria was the patience and precision, as well as Nigeria's willingness to attack. Ukraine sat back with numbers, making it difficult to break down their five-man defensive wall. The Americans held a 2-1 edge in possession, but their inability to break down Ukraine left them frustrated and ineffective.
On Monday, the Americans held a 60-40 edge in possession, and though they were outshot by the Nigerians, they were able to generate more promising build-ups in the final third. Of course, part of that was down to an attack-minded Nigeria having to open up even more as it chased the game, but it was also a product of more incisive passing by the U.S. team's creative players, as well as Soto's hold-up play and intellgent runs from the striker position.
D.C. United midfielder Chris Durkin was another one of the U.S. team's standouts, taking advantage of the increased amount of space left open by Nigeria's attack-minded setup. Durkin was one of the players who underperformed against Ukraine, at least in part because of Ukraine's defensive organization and penchant for bypassing him with long passes to their front men. Nigeria's style played to Durkin's strengths, as he won several balls in midfield as Nigeria kept trying to work through the middle, giving Durkin pleny of opportunities to show off his precise passing from deep in midfield.
It might have seemed risky for Ramos to sit Brandon Servania after his good showing against Ukraine, but Ramos banked on Alex Mendez and Paxton Pomykal working well together and they did, using their tanacity to contribute defensively to help deal with Nigeria's playmakers, while also being sharp in attack.
No play better symbolized how much sharper the Americans were on Monday than the sequence leading to Soto's second goal, which came just seconds into the second half. The United States took the opening kickoff and passed it around from the right wing, to the goalkeeper, then to the left wing, where it inevitable reached Chris Gloster, who capped an incisive run with an inch-perfect pass to Soto in the penalty area, and Soto made the most of his Hannover teammate's setup, finishing expertly to make it 2-0 just 26 seconds into the second half.
WHAT. A. GOAL. ⚡️⚡️
Sebastian Soto scores his second of the game and doubles the USMNT's lead 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/uOsBAKvZwx
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 27, 2019
Nigeria continued to attack, and did put some dangerous chances on target, forcing U.S. goalkeeper Brady Scott and the U.S. defense to hold on, but that test was a good one for an American back-line that looked shaky against Ukraine. Sergino Dest was much steadier against Nigeria, while Scott showed the poise in goal that helped him earn the starting nod for the United States. The central defender tandem of Chris Richards and Aboubacar Keita put in another good shift, while Gloster put together another strong shift at left back, capped by his stellar assist on Soto's second goal.
The challenge now for Ramos will be deciding whether to deploy a full-strength lineup against Qatar in hopes of finishing first in Group D, or choosing to rest some key starters with an eye toward the Round of 16. Winning the group has the advantage of securing a round of 16 match-up against a third-place team from another group, as well as avoiding having to face another group winner until the semifinals. Unfortunately for the Americans, they will need Nigeria to beat Ukraine to give the United States any hope of topping the group, and a Nigeria win and United States win on the final matchday would leave a three-way tie atop the group, with goal difference being the determining tiebreaker.
Finishing second in the group could mean having to face highly-rated France. A third-place finish in the group wouldn't necessarily be disastrous because it could mean a matchup against an opponent like Senegal or Italy. Neiither would be regarded as easy, but neither would be considered clearly worse than having to face France.
Armed with revamped confidence instilled by Monday's convincing victory, the Americans aren't likely to fear any opponent it faceds in the knockout round, but they must force dispose of Qatar to ensure a knockout round spot, and some momentum to go with it. Ramos should turn to his bench for some fresh options such as Ulysses Llanez, Richie Ledezma, Justin Rennicks, Julian Araujo and Mark McKenzie, allowing players like Alex Mendez, Tim Weah, Chris Durkin and Paxton Pomykal to recharge their batteries (and allowing Chris Richards to recover from the leg injury he suffered against Nigeria) before having to face what is sure to be a tough Round of 16 opponent.
Ramos will be sure to let his team know it can't look past Qatar, but Monday's victory should have the Americans feeling confident that the opening loss to Ukraine was just a stumble, and a deep tournament run is well within their grasp.