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U-20 World Cup

Know Your Under-20 Enemy: A Look at Spain

The United States U-20 national team kicks off its World Cup with a match against tournament favorite Spain. Can Tab Ramos' side pull a remarkable upset? Josh Deaver investigates.
BY Josh Deaver Posted
June 20, 2013
3:49 PM
What can you say about the Spanish national team? They are simple, beautiful and very, very good. As the undefeated, defending U-19 European champions, they are also the prohibitive favorites to capture the 2013 FIFA under-20 World Cup. While it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the U.S. could upset the La Rojita when they meet on Friday to kick off group play (2:00 pm ET on ESPN2), on paper it is more than a significant challenge.

The Americans are paired with Spain, France, and Ghana in Group A, the “Group of Death," and are prohibitive underdogs. But U.S. head coach Tab Ramos is excited for the opportunity to challenge the best in the world.

“To be honest, I like the players we have; I like the talent we have. We play Spain in the first game, they happen to be the favorites [so] I see this as a good challenge for us, to tell us if we are close or if we are really far away," he said. “If we can survive this group, coming out, I think we could beat anybody.”

The Spanish roster is teeming with eye-catching prospects, most who play for top reserve teams or in the Spanish second division. But for Ramos the equation is less about the who and more about the how. “They play the same way in all age groups. We just saw U-21 team win the European championship a few hours ago playing same way as seniors,” Ramos said on Tuesday. “We’ve gotten used to the U-20’s and the way they play. It will be difficult for us and something we’ll have to deal with.”

Let’s start with the good news: the Spanish defensive unit is the least experienced group. The bad news: they still have plenty of experience. The real strength from the Spanish backline comes from their ability to get forward and help in the attack. On the outside, look for Atletico Madird’s Javier Manquillo to get the start at right back. Solid defensively but also supremely athletic, Manquillo will not hesitate to get involved on offense. He has deceptive speed and often looks the part of a winger when making his runs. With 19 La Liga starts to his name, Celta de Vigo defender Jonny Castro is also an attractive option at the position. Anchoring the defense will likely be the center back tandem of Israel Puerto and Derik Osede. Osede features regularly from Real Madrid C and made 11 appearances in the second division. Puerto, currently on contract with Atletico Sevilla in Segunda Liga, has the most caps of any player on the current squad with seven. Diego Llorente, also of Real Madrid C, has been getting reps in the middle of defense as well. At every level, the Spanish midfield continues to be an embarrassment of riches. The U-20s are no different. There are countless options for Lopetegi, including players from Valenica, Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, and Manchester City. Levante's Ruben Garcia has been playing left wing recently in the 4-1-4-1 formation. With 31 apps in La Liga to go along with four goals and three assists, as well as 10 Europa League appearances to his name, Garcia boasts the most top flight professional experience within the talented Spanish side.

And then there is Oliver Torres. A slender, mop-topped central midfielder with incredible control and field vision, Torres was key member for Spain’s U-19 European Championship run. The Maestro can spray accurate long balls all day long but will mostly act to connect the midfield and attack with his spectacular passing and spatial awareness. Torres has an uncanny knack for finding empty pockets of space and almost always makes the correct decision. His service into the box and ability to help in attack will cause fits for the U.S. if he is given any room to operate. Next on this murderer’s row: Liverpool youth standout, Suso. Members of the Kop Army have been eager for his inclusion since the midfielder arrived at the club last summer. Suso is one of only two Spanish national team players playing for clubs outside of Spain (the other is Manchester City’s Denis Sanchez) but has nonetheless found quality time at Anfield, making 20 appearances in all competitions for the club last season. A likely starter, Suso will likely partner with Torres in the middle of the field. Saul Ninguez of Athletico Madrid B, is a likely starter as a defensive midfielder. He’s good. Ager Aketxe of Athletico Bilboa B, also quite good, picked up five goals in 27 appearances for the second division side. Jairo Samperio is the team’s leading scorer. Last season he appeared in all 38 league matches while netting 10 times for recently relegated second division side Racing Santander. Sevilla’s Jose Campana and Valencia’s Juan Bernat, who could start at left back, round out the lineup. Both received first team reps in La Liga this season.

Ready for more? The Spanish striking corps contains some of the most celebrated and highly touted youth prospects in recent memory. Currently, perhaps no youth player in world football is as coveted as right sided striker Gerard Deulofeu. The only representative from Barcelona among the Spanish squad, Deulofue’s output is exciting national team observers and club fans alike. Playing for Barcelona B in the second division, the young attacking dynamo put in his best campaign in 2012/2013, scoring 18 goals and picking up six assists in 33 appearances for the club. Typically deployed on the right side, Deulofue is incredibly fast and elusive. He loves to cut in from the right, on his right foot, and can effortlessly slalom through the opposition, drawing multiple defenders and opening up large pockets of space. His close quarter dribbling has a habit of making defenders and goalkeepers, who he will round at the drop of a hat, look incredibly foolish. Deceptively strong and a clinical finisher, he may be the most dangerous player in the entire tournament. Another option is Jese Rodriguez—or, simply Jese. Despite his 22 goals and 12 assists for Real Madrid B, he could be be relegated to the substitute bench in favor of Garcia. While not lacking the technical wizardry of Deufloefue, Jese is the more audacious and flashy of the two. A certain Messi/Ronaldo contrast between the two can be found if you’re looking hard enough. An excellent dribbler in full stride, his runs are powerful enough to overwhelm most defenders. Jese took home Golden Boot honors at the U-19 European championships scoring five goals, including the lone tally in the final win against Greece. Heading the tip of the spear is team captain Francisco “Paco” Alcacer. Currently on loan with Getafe from Valenica, Alcacer earned 21 La Liga appearances this season to go along with three goals and one assist.

If there is one weakness of this Spanish squad, it’s that they have been prone to defensive lapses. If the U.S. can shut down open spaces and make it difficult for Spain to circulate possession—far easier said than done—they can force them into a mistake. In a pair of friendlies last week, Spain fell behind twice against a feisty Uzbekistan before rescuing the win with a stoppage time penalty kick. Two days later against Chile, leading 1-0 in the 71st minute, Spain conceded four goals in the span of 20 minutes, including two in stoppage time on the way to a 4-4 draw with the Chileans. This same squad was also held scoreless against Japan and Argentina in a series of August 2012 friendlies.

The keys for the U.S. game plan will be its defensive transition. Players and coaches highlighted the speed of play as the biggest takeaway from the Toulon Tournament early in the month. Spain has it in spades, and the U.S. coaching staff knows it will likely be the most difficult adjustment for his players to make prior to the World Cup. “One thing we have to prepare for is speed of transition from offense to defense and from defense to offense,” Ramos said. “We tried as much as we can to work on transitions from losing the ball to trying to recover it. It’s a challenge for us because a lot of players are not used to the speed of play.”

The Americans will need to fine-tune quickly if they hope to stop the potent Spanish attack. It will be especially vital for the outside duo of DeAndre Yedlin and Juan Pablo Ocegueda to keep the speedy Spanish wingers in front of them. If they can pick out space to work with behind the back four, it will be very difficult to keep them from laying siege to Cody Cropper’s net. One major point of concern is Shane O’Neill’s suspension, which he received after picking up a red card in the CONCACAF Championship final against Mexico. Creighton’s Eric Miller will fill O'Neil's role against Spain. Usually a right back, Miller will be in for the test of his life on Friday. There will be no time for a learning curve.

The midfield duo of Wil Trapp and Mikey Lopez is equally vital if the U.S. hopes to capture a famous result. Depending on the strategy, Ramos may choose to go defensive by pairing Trapp and Lopez in front of the back four. This combination proved successful against high-octane attacking sides in CONCACAF competition by eliminating space in the midfield. A more attack-minded 4-1-2-3 formation is also an option, allowing, for example, a pairing of Benji Joya and Luis Gil to act as more advanced playmakers. Regardless of who lines up for Ramos, they will need to stay grounded, be efficient with possession and try to pressure Spain with the counterattack.

It will be incumbent on Jose Villarreal and Daniel Cuevas to apply pressure on the wing, and for either Alonso Hernandez or Mario Rodriguez to offer that solid presence in the Spanish penalty area. Ramos was full of praise for newcomer Hernandez: “He plays for Moneterry, who have some great players. He plays for coach [Víctor Manuel] Vucetich. I played for him and I know how demanding he is and to get time says a lot about the player.”

Rodriguez has also shown his top form in recent months. Despite receiving scant (read: almost zero) playing time with Kaiserslautern U19 before his participation in the CONCACAF qualification tournament, Rodriguez was able to consistently crack the lineup in the latter stages of the season, scoring 10 goals in the process.

Hoping to inspire the team before kick-off on Friday, Ramos plans to show his squad video of the U.S. men’s senior team defeating Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup semi-final. Closing out his conference call on Tuesday, the U.S. coach departed on a confident note, saying, “the [senior team] upset Spain four years ago and there no reason why we can’t do that on Friday.”

A little positive imagery can’t hurt, right?

Cody Cropper; Juan Pablo Ocegueda, Eric Miller, Caleb Stanko, DeAndre Yedlin; Wil Trapp, Luis Gil, Benji Joya; Daniel Cuevas, Mario Rodriguez, Jose Villarreal

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

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