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U-20 CONCACAF Championship

After Reaching World Cup, U-20s Focus on Semifinal

The United States U-20 accomplished the first goal, but there's still a tournament to be won. Josh Deaver previews the American's semifinal match against Cuba on Friday night in Mexico.
BY Josh Deaver Posted
March 01, 2013
12:00 PM
The U.S. Under-20 Men’s national team is through to the 2013 U-20 World Cup, but Tab Ramos' club has a new goal: winning the CONCACAF Championship. The next obstacle for the Americans is a semifinal matchup on Friday against Cuba, a squad that has surprised observers with its performance and qualified for its first ever U-20 World Cup.

Ramos knows his team cannot look past the dangerous Cubans to a potential final against Mexico. “After watching Cuba play for three games, they are not a surprise anymore to anyone here. They’re a very good transition team, they’re very physical, they have good players,” the coach said. “They transition from defensive side to the forward side very quickly that’s something we may have difficulty with, because we have already in this tournament. It's something were focusing on going in to the next game.”

With a spot in the final on the line, let’s take a look at what we can expect on Friday from these two sides.

The Cubans are breathing new life into their downtrodden program. Whereas the senior team is frequently in the news more for stories of player defection than success, the U-20’s have come together and succeeded. While there may not be any marquee players or an exceptionally high level of talent, the side is motivated and has nothing to lose in an attempt to reach the finals of the CONCACAF Championship for the first time since 1974.

The current run of form is impressive. Since beginning its qualification campaign in July, Cuba is unbeaten in nine consecutive matches, conceding only four goals in the process. For the most part, head coach Raul Gonzalez has kept a similar lineup throughout the process and has built chemistry through continuity that shows on the field.

Still, Cuba remains a bit of a mystery in CONCACAF. The elusive and isolated nature of the program, as well as its domestic league, makes for a difficult scouting assignment. Recent matches, however, suggest that they will not be a pushover for the U.S. on Friday. Much like the Haitian side that tested the Americans in their opening group match, Cuba is a physical and athletic squad. Technical on the ball, they attempt to dictate play with a focus on possession and short passing combinations. While they were unable to execute this strategy as well on Tuesday as they did against Canada and Nicaragua, the defensive unit was solid and kept the Costa Ricans at bay.

The Cubans' most dangerous attribute, however, is their speed up front. They consistently look to push the pace, using long outlet passes to get the ball on the wing during counterattacks, which is where they have created most of their chances in the tournament. Cuba was a constant danger in the Tico’s penalty area. The comparative height of their forwards also makes them a threat on set pieces and crosses into the box.

The main offensive threat of the squad is clearly the attacking duo of Maykel Reyes and Arichel Hernandez. The two have combined for five of Cuba’s seven goals in so far in the tournament and more than half of the squad’s scoring output during Caribbean qualifying. Reyes, along with American Jose Villarreal, is currently leading the tournament in goals for players still in active competition.

With World Cup qualification already confirmed, several members of Tab Ramos’ squad have returned to their club teams. This includes Stuttgart’s Jerome Kieseswetter, Real Salt Lake’s Luis Gil, and Freiburg’s Caleb Stanko. Goalkeeper Cody Cropper was originally supposed to return to English side Southampton, but will instead depart from Puebla following the match against Cuba. With defender Eric Miller also out due to injury, the U.S. will have 13 field players for the remainder of the competition.

The duo of Javan Torre and Shane O’Neill are almost certain to start at center back while Juan Pablo Ocegueda and Boyd Okwuonu will reprise their roles on the outside. With two matches left, potentially including a final, any injury or suspension will require some creative lineup shifting as the Americans are without backline depth. If emergency substitutions are required, putting Dillon Serna or Torre at left back, Okwuonu in the middle, and Ocegueda at right back is the extent of what Ramos could feasibly do.

In the victory over Canada, once again, the U.S. excelled in a 4-2-3-1 formation, deploying Wil Trapp and Benji Joya as holding midfielders. While Ramos has attempted to sporadically use the 4-3-3—notably in the first half versus Haiti and the second half against Costa Rica—the Americans have had little success. With only one defensive midfielder, the U.S. was overrun in the middle of the park in both games, conceding several scoring opportunities. Expect the combination of Trapp and the returning Mikey Lopez to sit in front of the back line on Friday in an attempt to stifle the Cubans counterattack.

Against Canada, the U.S. attacking corps put on its most dynamic performance of the tournament. After some uneven outings in the group stage, Joya and Gil, along with Villarreal, Daniel Cuevas, and Mario Rodriguez all contributed positively to the 4-2 scoreline. Now that is Gil back with Real Salt Lake, Joya will likely move up and assume his role in the center midfield. Daniel Garcia along with Serna will be the only two substitutes available off the bench.

While he has had his detractors, and rightfully so, Rodriguez should line up as a center forward once again. Switching positions with Villarreal, he also showed some quality on the wing, creating several chances and assisting the LA Galaxy standout on the go-ahead goal.

Despite roster difficulties, the U.S. coach is remaining focused on the task at hand. “For us, the process hasn’t changed at all, we’ve lost a couple of players but all we need to focus on is the players who are here,” Ramos said. “Our goals are still the same.”

Ramos added: “The good part is that I think we have players with good personalities here who are willing to accept challenges and I think that’s what was proven over the past three games. All the players who have gotten an opportunity to play have shown that they are up to the challenge, and I don’t think the next game will be any different.”

Cropper; Ocegueda, O’Neill, Torre, Okwuonu; Trapp, Lopez; Cuevas, Joya, Villarreal; Rodriguez

Josh Deaver is a former academic turned soccer obsessive. Follow him @USFootballGuy for daily updates.

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