Sullivan's hat trick leads the U.S. U-20s past Cuba 3-0 and into the knockouts
June 22, 2022
THE UNITED STATES U-20 national team got the result and the performance that it needed on Wednesday night when they defeated Cuba 3-0 to win Group E. Quinn Sullivan notched a first half hat trick and his first two goals came inside the opening eight minutes to put the game out of reach early.
The U.S. team needed to win this game in order to clinch Group E as Cuba came into this game with six points, two ahead of the Americans. Unlike the Canada game on Monday, the U.S. team was able to score early and take the drama out of the game. From there, it was easy for the U.S. team to coast.
Quinn Sullivan scored his opening goal in just the second minute when Paxten Aaronson played Caden Clark beyond the backline. The New York Red Bull midfielder then sent a perfect low cross to Sullivan who banged it home from close range.
Quinn Sullivan puts the U.S team up 1-0 pic.twitter.com/wvcMYC55ia— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) June 23, 2022
Then in the eighth minute, the U.S. team put the game essentially out of reach. Clark had the ball as the U.S. was pushing forward. He then played Alejandro Alvarado to the edge of the box. Alvarado then fed Sullivan who hit a powerful high shot past Cuba’s Ismel Morgado for a 2-0 lead.
And here is the second for Quinn Sullivan - the team’s leading scorer this cycle pic.twitter.com/d31aKXJZPT— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) June 23, 2022
From there, the U.S. simply coasted as Cuba was never able to muster anything dangerous. Then in the 43rd minute, the U.S. put the nail in the coffin as Aaronson sent a beautiful ball from his own half over the Cuban defense. Sullivan got on the end of it and moved in alone on Morgado. The Philadelphia Union connection did not fail as Sullivan beat Morgado with a low shot to complete his hat trick.
The second half was met with a wave of substitutions for both teams. The final 45 minutes lacked flow and intensity. Neither team ended up scoring.
Like the game against Canada, the U.S. team moved the ball well and dominated possession. Cuba finished with six shots, although nothing was ever dangerous to goalkeeper Chris Brady or the U.S. backline.
“It was really important,” head coach Mikey Varas said. “This was a final for whoever was going to win the group. We came in with the mentality that we have a clear game plan and the boys were dialed in before they got on the bus. Warm-up was excellent and we had a sense that we were going to start fast.”
The U.S. team finished atop Group E and will face Nicagargua on Saturday in the Round of 16.
Here are some thoughts
Early goals key
As one of the best teams in the tournament, the U.S. gets a huge advantage in scoring early. These early goals relieve the team of the pressure of being the favorite and they help to remove the opposing team’s believe that an upset is possible. Against Canada, the U.S. team let Canada hang around too much and then when the Canadians scored against the run of play, the U.S. team was on the back foot.
“They found a great balance between being disciplined with the game plan but also finding moments of creativity and freedom to break away from the plan,” Varas said. “I thought the ratio was really good.”
This game ended Cuba’s hopes early. From the opening goal, the game became very easy for the U.S. team to play without pressure. The second half was ugly, but that seemed almost by design.
“The most important thing is to get off on the right foot and it all started with warm up. We were locked in and ready. We knew it was a must win to win the group,” midfielder Alejandro Alvarado said. “[Mikey Varas] told us to stick to the game plan. 70% of the time, the game plan is going to work. 30% of the time, it's going to be us deciding what to do. As you could see, in the first few minutes, the game plan worked.”
The U.S. team needs to be more clinical and dominate games, but scoring early in the knockouts is going to be critical.
Sullivan comes up big
Quinn Sullivan wasn’t particularly sharp against Canada, but he was the MOTM against Cuba. There is no doubt that he has been a huge part of Mikey Varas’ plans for this team. Sullivan has had a great cycle, thus far.
In the second game of the January/February camp, he scored the winner against FC Dallas in a 1-0 victory. Then in March, he scored against Argentina in a 2-2 draw and then had a hat trick against River Plate in a 5-3 win. Coming into this tournament, he had five goals in his last three games for the U.S. U-20 team.
Now he has a hat trick to bring him to eight goals so far this cycle. He is a versatile player but Varas has opted to play him on the wing.
“Canada wasn't our best in the final third - for me especially,” Sullivan said. “But it was great to turn it around [against Cuba]. We scored two quickly and it was great to get off on the right foot. It turned out well in the end.”
“We got in behind them a few times early and put the goals away,” he added.
While the U.S. team has a lot of wing options, it will be hard for Varas to not have Sullivan on the field when the games are important in the knockout stages.
Craig/Neal CB combo
Brandon Craig and Jalen Neal were the central defense combination, and it was the first time the pair had started together this tournament. This has been the biggest area of concern for the U.S. team and the 2-2 draw against Canada. The pairing of Craig and Markus Ferkranus didn’t work well.
In this game the combination worked well and a big reason is that Rokas Pukstas had a strong game playing in front of that pair helping to end Cuba’s possessions before they tested the U.S. team’s backline. In addition to defending, Craig and Neal were also very effective in passing out of the back.
It could end up being the combination Varas settles with heading into the knockouts.
In terms of the players on the team who look most likely to move up a level after the U-20 cycle, Paxten Aaronson has shown quite a bit. He is very much a player in the mold of his brother.
Aaronson’s assist on the third goal was extremely impressive. He didn’t appear to have many options inside his own half. But he was able to spot Sullivan’s run and hit a perfect pass to send his Union teammate in alone on goal.
Aaronson has the vision to make plays that will break the game open. He also can control the game in tight spaces and play defense. He is going to be instrumental in the U.S. team’s plans moving forward.
Thursday update: Vargas injured
The U.S. team received rough news on Thursday when the Seattle Sounders announced that Obed Vargas was injured with a back injury.
Per Sounders manager Brian Schmetzer addressing the media today: “It’s not a good injury.”
Vargas, 16, was slated to join the U.S. team after the Nicaragua game. Vargas has been included on the 20-player roster since the beginning and it showed how highly U.S. Soccer rated him in that they were willing to play with 19 players for the first four games just to have him available for the qualifying games.
Vargas has had an amazing year for a player of his age. He was an important player for the Sounders for the entire CONCACAF Champions League and featured in the 2nd leg of the final after Joao Paulo went down with an ACL tear in the first half. Since then, Vargas has been the starting central midfielder for the Sounders.
Such an injury would be a setback to a player who was one of the top teenage prospects in MLS and within U.S. Soccer.
Per the tournament rules, U.S. Soccer is allowed to make a change to the roster after the group stage and 24 hours before its first knockout round game. Any roster changes must be due to injury and medical matters and the replacement must come from the provisional roster.
Whether CONCACAF will accept the substitution given that Vargas never joined the team in Honduras remains to be seen.
Should a replacement be granted, the most likely candidate would be Tarun Karumanchi who was on the final preliminary roster and trained with the team in April and before this tournament. Karumanchi was a product of the San Jose Earthquakes Academy and was slated to play with UCLA this fall. Karumanchi is a defensive midfielder and is likely the most ready to make a quick transition into the team.
Looking ahead to Nicaragua
The U.S. team will have two days of rest between games ahead of Nicaragua. Two days of rest will become the norm until the final.
Winning the group was key for the United States. Honduras is the toughest possible opponent apart from Mexico and winning the group delayed any potential matchup with Honduras until the semifinal.
If the U.S. advances past Nicaragua, it will face the winner of Costa Rica – Trinidad & Tobago (most likely). Costa Rica is still a good team that could give the U.S. team trouble, but Honduras as the hosts is the toughest team on this half of the knockouts.
It's hard to know what to make of Nicaragua's team. They advanced to this tournament becuase of its performance last year in a separate tournament. In that tournament in November, Nicaragua defeated Guyana 5-0, The Cayman Islands 2-1, and the U.S. Virgin Islands 7-0.
All but two of Nicaragua’s 20 players play domestically in Nicaragua. The remaining two play in Costa Rica. Seven of the team’s players play for Real Esteli FC, which finished second in the Clausura in Nicaragua. Midfielder Keylon Batiz is the best of that contingent who is on the Real Esteli’s first team and scored three goals this past season.
U.S. Soccer’s website noted that yellow cards reset after the group stages. That is very important as Diego Luna, Jack McGlynn, Cade Cowell, and Tyler Wolff all had yellow cards after the group stages.
Expect Varas to move away from squad rotation and into a more lineup that can help get this team across the finish line. If the U.S. team gets ahead of Nicaragua in the first half, he can begin subbing out some of his regulars.
Based on what we’ve seen in the Group Stages, here is a predicted lineup vs. Nicaragua.
Predicted: U.S. U-20 XI vs. Nicaragua: Brady; Allen, Craig, Neal, Cuevas; Edelman, McGlynn, Aaronson; Luna, Cowell, Sullivan.