By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 26, 2013) US Soccer Players - The chances for the United States to make any noise at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey seemed to die the day FIFA revealed the draw. The Americans, back in the competition after failing to qualify for the 2011 edition, were drawn into the mandatory (because every tournament has one) “Group of Death.” And this was not just any group of death. It was the group of death that laughs at other groups of death.
Included were the foremost soccer-playing nation in the world at the moment at all levels, a country with a thrilling young generation of talent capable of demolishing most teams, and an African nation with its own pedigree and a legitimate chance to advance far into the tournament. Spain, France, and Ghana. The word “ouch” comes to mind.
Throw in the small detail that the United States landed in Turkey having just lost to France 4-1 in a U-21 tournament in Toulon, France, and the situation looked rather dire. Ramos had no solutions for a broken backline, his defense debilitated by injury and failing to get a commitment from German-American sensation John Anthony Brooks for the World Cup. A healthy Walker Zimmerman stayed at home to continue the MLS season with FC Dallas, a confusing situation that led to the scratching of many heads in many quarters.
When the USA lost to Spain 4-1 in their opener, the list of positives read “Luis Gil” and little more. But the Americans took the game to the Spaniards, a reversal from most expectations, choosing to go at the European juggernaut rather than sit back and wait for Spain to pick them apart. They pressed high and hard, forcing Spain to navigate through a buzzing swarm of American players to get to Cody Cropper’s goal. Ramos, perhaps on the instructions of those above his pay grade in the US Soccer system, eschewed a pragmatic approach that had a very small chance of success for an expansive one that over-stressed his makeshift defense and led to a blowout loss. The result was not surprising, but the manner in which Spain punished the US (via long balls and counterattacks) was.
If this was a senior tournament, where advancing was the only goal, Ramos might deserve significant criticism for playing into Spain’s hands. As it is, the US showed enough flashes in the attacking end of the field that the choice doesn’t seem so insane. If the future of American soccer is exactly that game - high pressure, desire to possess the ball, quick passing, interchange and movement - then why not lose to the best youth team in the world trying to make it work? If US Soccer’s aim results at all costs, Ramos would be throwing out the current program to park the bus and hope for the best.
The noticeable improvement in the Americans’ second game against France took a late scrambled-in goal by Daniel Cuevas to save the US from defeat. Much of the attacking adventure seen in the opener was absent in game two, to better protect the shaky back line. Ramos learned from the opening game (an acknowledged lost cause, though it’s unlikely that was the mood in the locker room) and adjusted for a game the Americans had a better chance of winning. If not for Luis Gil’s missed penalty, the US might have grabbed three points instead of one. The performance seemed to indicate a flexibility and fight that will serve them well down the line.
Whether the American performance in Turkey is good enough hinges on their final group match against Ghana on Thursday. Like the senior team in 2006, and again in 2010, the American U20 will see their World Cup hopes come down to a game against the African power. How Ramos chooses to approach the game will give a strong indication of just how important advancing from the “Group of Death” is to US Soccer and the coaching staff. Open and aggressive, a strategy that might be “irresponsible” given the stakes but could best showcase the attacking talent in the American pool? Or tighter, more compact in the midfield, protecting the backline but limiting the number of the players the U.S. can get forward?
It is likely to be the latter, in part because measuring success - even at a development level like U20 – means wins and losses over a short timeline. There is no telling right now how many of the American players will one day contribute to the senior team, but ultimately the goal of the program is to prepare them for that possible eventuality. Advancing, however, even as one of the third place teams in the tournament, represents tangible evidence that America is producing good soccer players in numbers large enough to put together a good team. That validates those in charge of the program, which buys them more time to produce more, better, soccer players. The devil is in balancing the need to get results versus the experience young players need operating within the program’s overarching philosophy.
The experience of the American side at the U-20 World Cup so far is illustrative of the limbo the whole program inhabits. Ramos’s varying strategies over two games are indicative of the strengths and weaknesses (some of them self-made) of his team while he considers the directions of US Soccer.
Win, lose, or draw on Thursday, advancement to the Round of 16 or a return trip home, the ultimate measure of success Tab Ramos and this generation of young American players won’t be known for years to come. In the meantime, it would just be nice not to go out to the Ghanaians. Again.
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