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U.S. U-20 preview

High expectations and big questions for the U.S. U-20 team ahead of qualifying

The United States U-20 team will kickoff its World Cup qualifying campaign on Thursday against Puerto Rico in Florida. ASN's Brian Sciaretta will be covering the tournament and here is his preview for the first stage. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
October 31, 2018
5:00 AM
ON THURSDAY, the United States U-20 national team will open its World Cup qualifying campaign against Puerto Rico and it will kick off a brutal schedule where Tab Ramos and his players will play five games in nine days in the opening group stage.

To advance, the United States must win its group and on paper it is favored in every single game. The problem is that one single slip up could prove to be fatal to the team’s qualifying. With the team playing every other day, every player must expect to start every single game.

One safe bet is that Ramos will probably select his top lineup against Puerto Rico because that would allow him to select his best team again for the November 5 matchup against Trinidad & Tobago and the group finale on November 9 against Suriname. The matchups on November 3 against the U.S. Virgin Islands and November 7 against St. Vincent and the Grenadines will probably feature a second-best starting lineup.

Versatility and endurance will be key to success in this group. It is unrealistic to expect this team to always be at its best but it will have to prove it can win ugly when necessary.

With just one team advancing from every group and the U.S. team the favorite in Group A, it means that every opponent will be putting out its best lineup and best effort against the U.S. team. So the pressure will be there for Ramos and the players every single game. The U.S. team qualified the last three cycles but in each tournament, there were times when they flirted with elimination. There will be huge tests along the way.

The good news is that the U.S. team will be hosting this tournament for the first time in decades. That should lead to an improved performance as the quality of fields in recent editions of the tournament in the Caribbean and Central America was far from ideal. Poor conditions typically serve as a talent equalizer and with the conditions ideal this year, the quality has a better chance of rising to the top.

With regards to the U.S. team, here are some things to watch.

Central Defense depth will be tested

With Chris Richards not released for the tournament and Mark McKenzie still with the Philadelphia Union for the playoffs, Ramos will turn to young and inexperienced central defenders. Julian Araujo is playing up this cycle (eligible for the 2021 U-20 World Cup team) and came on very late when he impressed Ramos while playing for the U.S. U-19 team that defeated the U-20 team.

Meanwhile Sam Rodgers is the other central defender where he plays with the Seattle Sounders 2 team in USL. The last two U.S. U-20 cycles were stacked in central defense. That is not the case here. The drop off after Richards and McKenzie is steep.

Two items to consider on this. First, during this tournament, Ramos might ask fullbacks Jaylin Lindsey or Matthew Real to play in central defense. It’s not ideal, but against lesser opponents they should be able to get the job done.

Second, Ramos might go with two defensive midfielders at this tournament at times to shield the backline. Brandon Servania is normally a No. 8 but has been playing as a No. 6 so far in camp. One option to play alongside him would be Juan Pablo Torres.

It’s a tough call as two defensive midfielders might limit the attack, and the U.S. team should be able to score multiple goals against all opponents. If the U.S. team takes multigoal leads, second half adjustments to provide more defensive bite in the midfield is probably expected.

A lot riding on Llanez

Along with Araujo, Ulysses Llanez is another player who is playing up this cycle. Ramos certainly needs both players ready to step up and deliver at the older age group. Araujo to cover for central defense and Llanez to supply the needed attack.

Llanez is the team’s best winger on this opening roster. Perhaps later in the tournament and possibly heading to the World Cup he will be aided by Jonathan Amon, Tim Weah, and Nick Taitague. But for now, Llanez will have to shoulder the burden.

Thus far Llanez has impressed with U.S. youth teams this year and is in good form. That will have to continue.

Who will finish?

It is possible that Ramos will be able to add a lot of offensive firepower in the second stage, if the U.S. advances. Sebastian Soto, Tim Weah, and Josh Sargent are all potential players who could be added to the team.

For now, that burden will fall on the Indiana University duo of Justin Rennicks and Griffin Dorsey along with Toronto FC Ayo Akinola who was on the 2017 U.S. U-17 team.

Rennicks has impressed at times this cycle. In June, he stood out in an away friendly against Honduras. Akinola has experience with U.S. youth national teams and Dorsey is somewhat new to this level but has been performing well in college and helped the U.S. U-18 team win the Vaclav Jezek Tournament in the Czech Republic.

There is not a lot of professional experience among the forward contingent and that is not idea. Still, they have ability to get the job at this level in CONCACAF.

Predicted Starting XI vs. Puerto Rico

GK: Brady Scott
RB: Jaylin Lindsey
CB: Sam Rogers
CB: Julian Araujo
LB: Matthew Real
Mid: Brandon Servania
Mid: Alex Mendez
Mid: Isaac Angking
Wing: Ulysses Llanez
Wing: Frankie Amaya
Forward: Justin Rennicks

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