U.S. U-20s show some flash, but not enough quality in World Cup loss to Ukraine

Tab Ramos’ team showed some of the skill expected, but not nearly enough to open its World Cup with a win against a tough and disciplined Ukraine

There were moments on Friday when you could see what all the pre-tournament fuss was about surrounding the U.S. Under-20 World Cup team, but those moments were too few and far between on a day when Ukraine beat the Americans by being the tougher and more disciplined team.

Ukraine’s 2-1 win came on a foundation of defensive organization, long-ball effectiveness and set-piece superiority. It was by no means pretty, or fancy, but the vocal Ukraine fans in Bielsko-Biala, Poland surely didn’t care about their team winning style points. The Ukrainians won the only points that mattered, and it was fully deserving.

As much as Ukraine deserves credit for resolute defending and avoiding mistakes, the U.S. team must shoulder the blame for a lackluster performance that featured defensive breakdowns, a disjointed attack, and a lackluster second half that doomed the Americans to defeat. It wasn’t all bad — the Americans held a large edge in possession and created the better chances in the run of play — but it was far from being good enough to deserve three points.

Tab Ramos knew what his team was in for, facing a Ukraine side that was going to sit in a low block with a five-man defense, looking to spring one of its danger men on the counter, so he went with Tim Weah as a lone striker, presumably with the hope that Weah would stretch Ukraine’s defense with his speed.

Unfortunately, the only thing Weah stretched was the U.S. attacking setup. He was largely lackluster when stationed in the central channel, and inevitably floated out wide, where he helped deliver the assist on Brandon Servania’s goal. The only problem with Weah’s move wide was it wound up leaving a big gap up top, one that wasn’t going to be filled by Paxton Pomykal, who operated more as a freelancing midfielder than striker or false nine.

This shift not only clogged the middle, but left Konrad De La Fuente starved for support on the right wing, where the Barcelona academy prospect showed some good flashes, and even laid off a picture-perfect cross to the front of goal, only to find no striker there to finish.

Weah showed more promise operating out wide, but at times it felt like the U.S. team lost its identity because players spent more time to trying to feed him than combine passes centrally (which provided a reminder that Weah hasn’t spent much time playing with this U-20 team, and wasn’t on the squad in Concacaf qualifying). The Americans were at their best when they were passing and moving through the middle, like they did on the build-up to Servania’s goal. There wasn’t enough of that in the second half though, and we instead saw a steady diet of wide players trying to take people on rather than combining with teammates.

Alex Mendez showed the skill that helped him dominate the Concaaf Championships last November, but Ukrainian goalkeeper and Real Madrid prospect Andriy Lunin used all 6-foot-3 of his frame to keep out multiple left-footed blasts from Mendez, who became less effective as the match wore on, and as Ukraine bunkered in more, forcing the U.S. to resort to attacking the flanks.

The most disappointing performance of the day was arguably turned in by Sergino Dest. The Ajax right back was one of the most highly-rated players entering the tournament, but he was abused on Ukraine’s first goal and looked shaky defensively and timid offensively, particularly in the second half where he seemd to fade out of the picture. Dest was probably the last defender Tab Ramos thought he was going to have to worry about, but Ukraine star Serhiy Buletsa made Dest’s life hell, which in turn unsettled the rest of the U.S. defense.

Overall, the Americans did show some of the technical quality expected from it, but it showed more in the first half than the second half. When Mendez, Paxton Pomykal and Brandon Servania were combining passes and moving without the ball, the U.S. attack was a joy to watch, but that disappeared in the second half, which had to leave Ramos frustrated.

Ultimately, the Ukrainians received standout performances from their best players, with Lunin, Buletsa and Denys Popov showing their quality. None of the U.S. team’s top players delivered at the same level, and in the cases of Weah and Dest, their performances were largely frustrating to watch.

The Americans must regroup and refocus on a very tough challenge on Monday, against a Nigeria side that opened its World Cup with a 4-0 win against Qatar. The Nigerians showed off a blistering attack, but also some defensive vulnerability that could give the Americans some hope that their attack will have more room to operate. From a match-up standpoint, the United States will like its chances in a wide-open game, but with Dest looking so shaky, and starting left back Chris Gloster having been forced out of Friday’s match with an injury, the fear is the U.S. back-line may not be up to the task if Monday’s match turns into a shootout.

The U.S. U-20s will need better performances from players like Weah, and Dest, and they will need Ramos to learn from the opening match, which he will have to shoulder some of the blame for. The U.S. attack won’t work with Weah as a winger, and the U.S. defense is going to get shredded by Nigeria if Dest doesn’t improve (assuming Ramos doesn’t decide to start Julian Araujo at right back).

Above all, the U.S. U-20s need to play with more urgency than they showed in the second half against Ukraine, when instead of rising to the challenge, they looked timid and flat, which is a recipe for disaster at any World Cup.

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