U.S. U-20 analysis

Analysis: U.S. routs New Zealand 4-0 to advance to U-20 World Cup quarterfinal

The United States is back into familiar territory with its fourth straight trip to the U-20 World Cup quarterfinal. After a 4-0 win over New Zealand on Tuesday, the U.S. team now has four wins from four games. ASN's Brian Sciaretta offers up his thoughts on the U.S. team's latest step forward in Argentina. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
May 30, 2023
7:55 PM

THE UNITED STATES is through to the quarterfinals of the 2023 U-20 FIFA World Cup after a dominant 4-0 win over New Zealand on Tuesday. The U.S. team was in control of this game from the start and turned the game into a rout in the second half as Mikey Varas and his team will now wait until Thursday’s game between The Gambia and Uruguay to learn their quarterfinal opponent.

Unlike the second group stage game against Fiji where the U.S. was heavily favored but couldn’t score until the 66th minute, in this game the United States was able to strike early to take the pressure off.

In the 14th minute, Owen Wolff took a pass from Diego Luna and elected to shoot from distance. His shot was well placed but not struck with very heavy velocity. New Zealand goalkeeper Kees Sims appeared on replay to indicate he thought the shot was going wide and pulled his arm back so not to touch it. The ball ended up sneaking into the goal just inside the post.

The U.S. controlled the rest of the first half but there were periods they conceded possession while playing with five in the back on defense and three in the back in the attack.

In the second half, the U.S. team simply took control and put the game out of reach easily. In the 61st minute it was Luna again with an assist as he played Cade Cowell into the box. The San Jose Earthquake attacker was given too much space and he fired a shot past Sims who didn’t even attempt a save.

The in the 75th minute, the U.S. team turned it into a lopsided game on a counter attack that was started by Luna. Luna played Cowell into the box on the left side. Cowell’s cross led to a skirmish in the box and Justin Che was able to slam home the loose ball and a 3-0 lead.

The final goal was in the 82nd minute as the U.S. team was awarded a free kick on the left side of the box. Brandan Craig took the free kick and he hit a picture-perfect ball over Sims that landed on the head of a streaking Rokas Pukstas for an emphatic finish from close range and a 4-0 lead.

Here are some thoughts on the game.


U.S. played like the favorite


We have yet to see this U-20 U.S. team play a country that is historically a world-power in an official competition. Ecuador was the best team it has faced, so far, and in most of the games the U.S. team has had a clear talent edge. But that is fine. As the U.S. climbs the hierarchy of the sport, it will be the favorite in more games. But there is a skill that comes to playing like a favorite, namely not playing down to the level of your competition.

This team has been very good at playing like a favorite. It’s not easy. It is why the U.S. failed to qualify for the Olympic games in 2012, 2016, and 2020/21. It’s why the full national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup or struggled in qualifying for 2014. It’s why Mexico wasn’t able to get past the Dominican Republic in qualifying.

In all three of the group stage games, the U.S. team’s squandering of chances made the games seem closer than they really were. The U.S. team’s midfield as really done a great job controlling the possession and quickly getting the ball forward. There has been very good distribution out of the back and the fullbacks have also stretched the game wide.

Against New Zealand, the U.S. team played up to it's talent level from the opening whistle. Now, there were a few shaky moments before Wolff opened the scoring. Gaga Slonina had to make a rare tough save and the U.S. team needed some emergency defending that caused New Zealand to unsuccessfully shout for a penalty due to a handball. But after Wolff's goal, the U.S. was never tested. Even when New Zealand had some possession, it was just because the U.S. shifted to a five-man backline on defense and New Zealand never threatened. 

Overall, the team doesn’t really let up and it plays how it wants to play regardless of the opponent.


Luna had his best game


Diego Luna was the MOTM against New Zealand. He had assists on the first two goals and he started the counterattack that resulted in the third goal.

Like everyone else, he has also struggled with his finishing, but he has been to important to this team to take off. Yes, the U.S. team is now bolstered with the addition of Kevin Paredes on the wing and Rokas Pukstas in midfield, but moving forward in this tournament, Luna is making himself too important to take off. He is pressing, he is winning balls, and he is creating chances. His work-rate is very high and it both flusters the opponents and helps raise the level of his teammates.


Craig leading a strong backline


Mikey Varas is correct that the team’s impressive clean sheet run is not just he backline but is also the entire team’s defensive effort including the midfielders, forwards, and goalkeepers. But the team’s backline has been huge and the three-man central defense lineup of Justin Che-Brandan Craig-Josh Wynder is gelling very well throughout this tournament and is only getting stronger.

Craig might not be the most athletic central defender but pairing him in the middle between two very good athletes allows him to focus on his strengths, namely passing out of the back. Craig’s distribution out of the backline has been very, very good. His set piece deliveries are routinely resulting in chances.

Similarly, Josh Wynder and Justin Che are also having very good tournaments. Che is impressing despite having a tough season at Hoffenheim where the option to buy his loan was declined. Wynder has a very high ceiling but is also one of the youngest players on the team and has only one U-20 camp under his belt before arriving in Argentina.

Given that Craig has also not played much by way of first team minutes in Philadelphia, there were individual questions surrounding all three players. But together, they have formed one impressive unit and it is driving the U.S. team’s success thus far at the World Cup.


U.S. in a good spot for quarterfinal


Overall, there is a lot to like about where this U.S. team is at right now heading into the quarterfinals. The team hasn’t conceded a goal and has four wins from four games. But they’re gaining steam. There are no injuries, no suspensions, and the team will now have the additions of Pukstas and Paredes for over a week by Sunday’s game.

In turn, there is also the rest factor. The U.S. team defeated New Zealand on a Tuesday and will get to rest and prepare for their next knockout game which is on Sunday. Their opponent will be decided between The Gambia and Uruguay winner on Thursday. The winner there will only have two days of rest before Sunday.


Sometimes that works both ways. Sometimes too much rest causes rust while short rest allows a team to continue the momentum of a big win. Still, if The Gambia/Ukraine game is physically and mentally taxing as it seems (both teams are very good and physical), it is hard to see Sunday being easy for them on short rest.

The big decisions will come down to Varas and his selections This game will be the first time Varas is able to start his best XI. But how does he squeeze Pukstas into a midfield where Edelman, McGlynn, and Luna as a false nine are all playing well? This would then assume that Cowell and Paredes are locks as the wingers. It seems tough at this point to bench McGlynn or Luna. Based on his performances in qualifying Pukstas playing as the No. 6 doesn’t seem to fit his strengths as he has had much success in a more advanced role this season at Hajduk.

Varas could get more of his best team on the field in the front six if he shifted to a 4-3-3 but is he willing to breakup the three-man backline that has been stellar thus far?

No matter what, Varas has tough decisions in how to build this team in the quarterfinal.

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