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U-20 World Cup

Know Your Under-20 Enemy: A Look at France

The United States U-20 team gets center back Shane O'Neill back for its match against high-powered France. Will he be enough to help Tab Ramos' club turn around its World Cup fortunes?
BY Josh Deaver Posted
June 24, 2013
9:39 AM
With a 4-1 loss to Spain in the rearview, the U.S. under-20 men’s national team must quickly rebound to face a high-powered French squad on Monday (11am ET on ESPN2) in Group A action.

Les Blues looked formidable in their opening match of the tournament, a 3-1 victory over Ghana, and with a win over the U.S. would virtually guarantee advancement to knockout round. On the other hand, the Americans will be playing for any type of result, as anything less than a point will likely bar them from continuing in the tournament. U.S. head coach Tab Ramos believes his team can come away with a positive performance but seems resigned to the attacking prowess of France. “We have to do the best we can,” said Ramos. “We realize we’re playing against great players and we have to make them uncomfortable."

Midfielder Wil Trapp, who should start, echoed his coach’s point. “When you look at France, they are definitely very athletic—big, strong, fast guys. … Our pressure has to be good. Defensively we have to be sound," he said. “These are top-class players who can finish and put away chances if give it to them. We have to work hard and just do our best to contain them.”

Easier said then done. Let’s take a look at what the Americans can expect in another tough matchup on Monday.

The teams met recently at the Toulon Tournament, and the U.S. was badly beaten by the French. The hosts brought an older and wholly professional roster, battering the American players from the opening kick on the way to a 4-0 victory.

Fortunately for Ramos, France’s Toulon Tournament selection is entirely different from the one competing in Turkey. Unfortunately, this France squad is no less dangerous. The team features top players from the French domestic league and around the world, led by captain Paul Pogba. The French-born Guinean is a silky midfielder who plays regularly for Juventus in Serie A. As a 12-million Euro transfer from Manchester United, Pogba scored five goals in 27 appearances for the club this season on the way to the Serie A title. The young starlet also made eight Champions League appearances during the team’s quarterfinal run. As his highlight reels will show, the right-footed, mohawked youngster is capable of some extraordinary strikes and moments of creative brilliance. He is also the metronome by which the French side operates. Against Ghana he touched the ball 115 times, more than any other player. If he is allowed the opportunity to dictate the pace, he will be a handful for the U.S. Pogba is not an outlier among the French squad in terms of his professional experience. Within the French selection, only five field players do not play in a top flight European league and most have been consistent contributors to their club teams this season.

Defensive starters Samuel Umtiti and the Manchester City-targeted left back Lucas Digne both participated in European competition this season with Lille and Olympique Lyon, respectively. Umtiti’s memorable goal for Lyon in the Europa League, an 20-yard wonder strike against Tottenham in the quarterfinals, stands out as one of the top tallies of this year’s competition. Digne is also a legitimate scoring threat, having picked up two goals in five matches for the U-20s so far this year. Rounding out the likely backline starters for head coach Peirre Mankowski are highly-rated Olympique Lyon center back Mouhamadou Sarr and Dimitri Foulquier, who made 15 appearances at right back for Stade Rennais. This talented and imposing back four is physical, difficult to break down, and good going forward. Sevilla defensive midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia and Florian Thauvin of SC Bastia should fill in the middle of the park. Both were excellent against Ghana. Kondogbia, who provided the game’s opening goal, will sit in front of the back four. If he keeps up his play, the tournament could led to a substantial transfer fee this summer, as he is rumored to be the target of several high powered European sides. Thauvin, on loan from OSC Lille, leads the French in scoring so far in 2013, netting four goals in as many games. A versatile attacking player who can play in any midfield position, Thauvin is gifted with extraordinary pace and dribbling ability. A threat every time he is on the ball, the 20-year old can stretch a defense easily with endline runs and can punish with his impeccable service into the box. After receiving the start against Ghana, Jordan Veretout of Ligue 2 side FC Nantes is also an attractive right-sided midfield option for Les Blues. He made 25 starts this season and led the team with six assists as a deep-lying playmaker. The diverse offensive array of the French makes it difficult for defenders to target any one player. The forwards for Les Blues are a potent unit. Starters Jean Christopher Bahebeck and Yaya Sanogo both scored in the win over Ghana. Bahebeck—who demonstrated his excellent finishing with a 77th minute curling strike—made 27 Ligue 1 appearances for ES Troyes last season, picking up three goals and three assists. Sanogo, after setting a torrid pace of 10 goals in 13 games for AJ Auxerre in Ligue 2, appears bound for the Emirates to play with Arsenal in the English Premier League next season. Standing at six-foot-two, Sanogo is a multidimensional threat with a sublime first touch that can punish sloppy defending in the run of play and especially on set pieces with his incredible vertical leap. Rounding out the group is right winger Alexi Bosetti of OSC Nice who could see time as a substitute.
There are two schools of thought regarding Ramos' plan. After experimenting with a high defensive line against Spain, he could stick to his guns and attempt to play eye-to-eye with another one of the best teams in the world. Or, the U.S. head coach could make some concessions. While the Americans could technically finds their way through to the knockout stages by finishing third place in group, they cannot depend solely of three points in Thursday’s game with Ghana to do so. They will likely need a result against Les Blues if they hope to extend their Turkish stay.

The head coach does not appear ready to alter his strategy despite the risk to results. “We came out to press Spain and came out to do the best we could to win the game,” Ramos said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to do that in all the games while we’re here.”

Regardless of the approach, Colorado Rapids defender Shane O’Neill will return to the lineup after serving a one-game red card suspension. Jevan Torre drew the unenviable task of slotting in at center back against Spain and was severely caught out against its potent attack. Torre’s poor performance and relaxed defending allowed in Spain’s first two goals, making it nearly impossible for the U.S. to recover. The outside back combination of DeAndre Yedlin and Juan Pablo Ocegueda was also thrown into the fire against Spain. Neither had a great game, although Yedlin’s offensive intentions were appreciated despite some questionable decision making at times. The French produce many of their chances using their superior pace on the wing, so the American defense must be mindful in transition to ensure they cannot find space behind the backline much the way Spain did on Friday.

If there are any, the adjustments will come in midfield. At the CONCACAF Championship, Ramos employed Wil Trapp and Sporting KC's Mikey Lopez as dual defensive midfielders. Using the pairing the U.S was able to more effectively eat up empty space in the midfield, and generally had an easier time as the tournament progressed. If the Americans hope to pick up a result on Monday, this option should be given real consideration. The change would sacrifice some offensive bite by removing either Benji Joya or Luis Gil, but it would help to prevent the French from executing on their deadly counterattack.

The U.S. attack against Spain was largely hit or miss. Ramos started with a front three of Danny Garcia, Jose Villarreal, and Alonso Hernandez. Ten minutes into the second half, both Garcia and Hernandez had been subbed off due to injury. This leaves the roster selection for Monday’s match in question. Daniel Cuevas, who came on for the concussed Garcia, looked lively and saw much of the ball during his shift. Despite lingering questions of fitness, the Santos Laguna prospect could potentially get the start. Mario Rodriguez, who came on for Hernandez was less effective. Despite coming into the tournament on excellent form, the departing Kaiserslautern forward could not find the rhythm of the game and was held without producing much danger. Depending on Hernandez’s health, Ramos could either slide Rodriguez into the XI or slot Villarreal up front, with Joya, Gil, and Cuevas in support.

Cropper; Yedlin, O’Neill, Stanko, Ocegueda; Lopez, Trapp; Cuevas, Gil, Joya; Villarreal

Josh Deaver is a former academic turned soccer obsessive. Follow him on Twitter.

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