U-20 World Cup analysis
Analysis: The United States U-20s down Slovakia 2-0 to win Group B at the World Cup
May 26, 2023
THE UNITED STATES finished group play at the 2023 World Cup with a perfect nine points and zero goals conceded after a 2-0 win over Slovakia on Friday.
The U.S team needed only a draw to win Group B while Slovakia entered the game with just three points from the first two games and likely needing at least a draw to secure passage into the knockouts.
U.S U-20 head coach Mikey Varas returned to the 3-5-2 formation he used in the 1-0 win over Ecuador in the opener. Brandan Craig, Josh Wynder, and Justin Che were the three central defenders. Michael Halliday and Caleb Wiley were the wingbacks.
The three-man midfield was captain Daniel Edelman, Obed Vargas, and Owen Wolff. Up top, Cade Cowell and Diego Luna spearheaded the attack.
While the U.S team was wasteful in the attack, they were able to score in the opening half to help dictate the pace of the game. The goal came from an outstanding individual effort from Cowell who dribbled through Slovakia’s defense before beating goalkeeper Adam Hrdina with a low shot.
From there, the U.S team controlled the game while Slovakia appeared to run out of ideas to create chances. The U.S team scored its second deep into stoppage time through substitute Niko Tsakiris.
The U.S team’s round of 16 opponent is not yet known - but it will be a number of possible third place finishers. That game will take place on Tuesday, May 30th.
“I mentioned before the start of the tournament that we were going to lean on our team culture and fighting spirit,” Varas said afterward. “I’m really proud of how many players have played an important role in helping us get that - that included the two goalkeepers who haven’t played but who have trained amazing to help our team.”
Here are some thoughts on the game:
Craig has been immense
The best U.S player in the group stage has been central defender Brandan Craig who has played every minute of the three games and has been very important in three areas.
First, defensively he has been a big reason why the team hasn’t conceded. He has won his duels and has been in the right position at all times. His biggest area of concern is his foot speed, but he has been playing smart and putting himself in the right position to neutralize this weakness.
Second, his passing out of the back accurate with an incredible range. He is hitting effective long distance passes that are changing the game.
Third, Craig is the team’s best set piece taker. He is putting free kicks and corner kicks into dangerous areas that gives the U.S team a clear scoring option. Sometimes he takes the shot directly. But his dead ball strikes are effective.
“Team chemistry has helped a lot,” Craig said. “Obviously we don’t play very often with each other but it’s just relying on each other and knowing what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are. That gets the job done. It’s really special to not concede a goal and we take real pride in that.”
“I thought I’ve been playing well,” he added. “Keeping clean sheets is my main job. that’s always a really nice feeling. I’m just really proud of this group.”
Finishing woes continue
As well as the U.S team has played overall, the team is also the most wasteful team thus far at the World Cup. In every game they missed multiple high percentage chances.
In this game against Slovakia, Luna should have scored and Cowell should have had at least one more.
Cowell’s goal was fantastic. But as he moves forward in this tournament and beyond, he needs to be consistently effective. What is clear in this tournament is that opponents spend a lot of time and energy trying to contain him. That is impressive. If he can consistently put away his best chances, he’d find his way into the full national team regularly.
The U.S team is passing well and creating enough chances, but putting them away needs to start now for the team to make a run in the knockouts.
Midfield is strong
Aside from finishing, this team is excellent. If Paxten Aaronson was here, they would truly be feared. And the team deserves credit while learning to play without Aaronson, who has been the team’s best player all cycle. He’s been such a focal point at every camp and tournament over the past two years, it’s no small task to adjust without him. But the team has adjusted well.
A lot of that has been the team’s midfield. The contingent of Edelman, Vargas, Wolff, and Jack McGlynn has been effective in winning loose balls, defensively shielding the backline while not allowing the opposing midfield to have extended possession, and quickly transitioning the ball into the attack.
This midfield group is always looking for the quickest way to attack, and it is always putting opponents on their heels.
Great shape for knockouts
Everything has worked out brilliantly for Varas in addition to the team having nine points from three games.
Looking into the round of 16, the U.S team is in great shape. For one, there are no injuries. Second, there are no suspensions. Third, he has mostly rotated his squad to avoid fatigue. Fourth, the team will now welcome top players Kevin Paredes and Rokas Pukstas into the team as Varas has been holding roster spots open for them to join the team in the knockouts.
Paredes will be a huge presence on the wing and should only open up the attack more to stretch opposing defenses. Pukstas will also give Varas another needed option in the midfield as Wolff has started all three games.
One concern, however, is that Craig has been the team’s best player but has also played every minute thus far. Is he capable of playing every minute of a deep run in the knockouts too?
But handling the pressure is not something Varas sees as a problem with this group and he cites the knockout performances last year at the CONCACAF Championships which included a win over hosts Honduras as the team secured spots in both this World Cup and next year’s Olympics.
“When you go into the knockout stages, everything changes because it’s one and done,” Varas said. “The boys will be prepared and we’ll work on the things we need to tighten-up a bit and also accentuate the things we’ve been doing well.”
“The boys have handled the pressure and the boys will handle the pressure moving forward.”
It’s hard to say what the U.S team’s best lineup would be at this point but a good guess would be a return to the 4-3-3 given the additions of Pukstas and Paredes.
One strong lineup for the round of 16 could be Slonina in goal, Gomez at right back, Craig and Wynder in central defense, Wiley at left back. Edelman, McGlynn, and Pukstas in midfield. Paredes and Cowell on the wings with Darren Yapi at center forward.
That could be the team’s most dangerous possible lineup and one with a good chance of making the quarterfinals.