U-20s qualify for World Cup but still need work
If the U.S. U-20 squad which qualified in Panama last week for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada this summer could have spread around its nine goals more evenly, no one could question the caliber of the team and its performance.
Yet even as the squad celebrated winning the tournament after defeating Haiti 4-1 and Panama 5-0, the scoreless draw against Guatemala remains a slight blemish that will remind both coach Thomas Rongen and the players themselves that there is still work to be done.
One hopes the Guatemala game will serve as a bit of a wake-up call that will keep the team sharper in the actual World Cup. The U.S. U-20 squad of 2005 dominated qualifying, won an opening group match in the World Cup tournament against Argentina, and then looked strangely helpless in bowing out of the quarterfinals to Italy. Compared to the heavy college contingent of the '05 team, this squad is already characterized by a greater reliance on pro players as leaders.
Here's a look at the performances of the U-20s:
This edition of the team is geared around captain Freddy Adu, who is expected to flourish in the attacking midfield role of the classic playmaker. However, Adu was a mixed bag in the tournament. He was a force against Panama with two goals and an assist and controlled the play, yet had little impact against Guatemala.
"I was playing too far away from the goal and every time I got the ball, I had 40 or 50 yards to go and I wasn't dangerous in those situations," said Adu.
Adu's assessment was valid, but it is still puzzling why that wasn't realized and corrected during the game -- especially in the second half. The team cannot easily afford to have Adu checking out for any games while in Canada.
Though the focus will always be on Adu, the other midfielders deserve their share of both the credit and blame for results.
Danny Szetela, playing somewhat of a destroyer role, looked far more effective throughout the tournament than he has in his oft-injured pro career with the Columbus Crew. However, against Guatemala he seemed to lack the confidence to attempt to produce any game-changing moments.
The athletic Anthony Wallace had a dream debut against Haiti, opportunistically finding space, scoring a goal and notching an assist. Yet he suffered a letdown against Guatemala, which closed down the field, exposing Wallace's limitations in maneuvering the ball well under tight marking.
Tony Beltran was quietly competent as a defensive midfielder, making smart, safe passes, though he only played that position in the final game when the U.S. was rampaging to an easy win.
Because of the 4-3-3 style that Rongen employed with the U-20s, the forwards often played deeper in the midfield, bringing the ball up on the wings. This was the group that struggled the most against the defensive bunker employed by Guatemala. Forwards Andre Akpan and Sal Zizzo couldn't seem to get on the end of passes set up by the midfielders, while Robbie Rogers' playmaking ability, which had produced two assists against Haiti, was stifled. Only late in the contest against Guatemala was he able to uncork one of his signature runs with the ball, beating his defender and unleashing a shot that was just wide.
That said, though the forwards rotated more than any other group on the field, Rogers was the lone constant, as he was consistently the most potent threat on the field. Against the more wide-open style of Haiti, his technical precision on the ball shone as he continually beat defenders to find space to cross. Against Panama, he scored a goal and assisted on Adu's strike with a clever dink of a pass after beating two defenders.
Hamburg's Preston Zimmerman had little time to show his quality, which could portend badly for the player, or merely be an indication that he will need more time before the next tournament to integrate well with the squad. Zimmerman was on the field though against Guatemala and his characteristic hustle nearly earned him a goal via a header.
Josmer Altidore, still rounding into form after an injury affected his training, also failed to have an impact. He seemed to lack game sharpness or perhaps simply didn't feel comfortable, not even attempting a shot against Panama. After such a stunning debut in MLS last year for the Red Bulls, it was expected that Altidore would excel at the youth tournament, but that simply didn't happen.
Harvard's Akpan scored three goals in his U-20 debut against Haiti, yet failed to display the same finishing skill against Guatemala and missed several glaring chances.
Perhaps most at risk due to his U-20 tournament performance is Zizzo. He functioned mostly as a complement to Akpan, maintaining possession up front, but never provided much of an offensive threat in the games in which he featured.
Jonathan Villanueva, in his limited role as a sub in the last match, provided more of a spark. Villanueva used his quickness and off-the-ball movement to get behind the tiring and dispirited Panamanian defense and showed good composure in scoring.
Despite Akpan's sterling start, Bolton's Johann Smith impressed me the most in the attack, as he adjusted his game style well to fit in with the U-20 squad.
"England, especially where I play, is a lot more direct," Smith said. "We play balls in behind a lot and bypass the midfield a good amount of the time -- while here we play a little more on the ground."
Smith proved proficient at both approaches, using speed and ball control to set up crossing opportunities on the flank that led to Adu's first strike against Panama, then reverting to his preferred English style when he ran down a long pass from defender Nathan Sturgis and calmly finished past the keeper. He might have been a difference-maker against Guatemala, but he never saw the field in that game.
Though it seemed like a small change at the time, the defensive lineup also could have greatly affected the Guatemala result. The L.A. Galaxy's Quavas Kirk, a converted midfielder-forward working in the right back spot for the U-20s, spent the match on the bench. It seemed appropriate as his unnecessary jersey tug had set up the penalty that led to Haiti's goal, the only one U.S. keeper Chris Seitz would surrender the entire tournament.
Yet Kirk, despite the liability his inexperience caused, was a dangerous element going forward and a bigger threat offensively than Beltran, who took the right back role against Guatemala.
"Quavas has done very well playing right back," said center back Sturgis, who himself was a stellar performer on the back line throughout the tournament.
Though not possessing the same skills on the ball as Sturgis, Julian Valentin was steady in the center, using his size and good positioning to consistently subdue threats in front of the goal. What Valentin lacks in speed he is able to compensate for with good anticipation.
Tim Ward provided versatile cover along the back line as he was equally capable on either side of the field. The Columbus Crew player was the model back throughout the tournament in terms of being able to defend well, yet also join in on the attack. It wasn't Ward's fault that some of his quality crosses into the box were wasted.
None of the defensive subs made any glaring mistakes, suggesting either that Rongen's choices were topflight, or that the CONCACAF attacking play is less so. Amaechi Igwe, an athletic defender whose speed is deceptive because he is so smooth on the ball, saw less than a half-hour of time as a late sub. Ofori Sarkodie was a composed player whose only limitation may be his lack of height -- and thus, his aerial game. Physically, though, he proved himself up for all the tussles over 50-50 balls, winning more than his share. Bryan Arguez did not look out of place in the little time he had on the field, impressing most by keeping everything he did simple.
Despite the team's first-place finish in the qualifying tournament, perhaps only Adu, Rogers, Sturgis and Smith sealed up bids to be key components in the upcoming World Cup. Rongen was unable to bring Michael Bradley, the Heerenveen teammate of Rogers, in for qualifying. Bradley would likely start this summer, shaking up the current midfield. Szetela will probably stay on, leaving Wallace or perhaps Beltran as the potential odd one out.
However, Rongen also indicated that other potential changes were likely, especially because college players tend to fall out of form when out of season. That could signal an opportunity for FC Dallas' Dax McCarty, a controversial late cut from the roster; or Neven Subotic, a defender from Mainz; or perhaps other young pro players like David Arvizu or Blake Wagner.
Even Seitz, who looked solid in goal throughout the three matches, could be pushed by Brian Perk or another goalkeeper in upcoming U-20 camps.
In the quest to improve, the squad might undergo considerable changes for the World Cup if the U.S. wants to seriously contend for the title.
That's not necessarily a priority though, as the U.S. has only reached the semifinal of the competition once, in 1989 with a squad led by Kasey Keller.
"I'm not losing sleep that we're not winning [U-20] World Cups," said U.S. Soccer federation president Sunil Gulati. As Gulati pointed out, the focus instead is on the number of youth national team players who have gone on to contribute to the senior team.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.