U-20 analysis

Thoughts on the U.S. U-20's enormous 3-2 World Cup upset of France

The United States pulled off an amazing 3-2 win over France at the U-20 World Cup led by two goals from Sebastian Soto and a winner from Justin Rennicks. ASN's Brian Sciaretta breaks it down for you. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
June 04, 2019
10:00 AM
THE UNITED STATES defeated France 3-2 in the round of 16 at the 2019 U-20 World Cup in one of the best wins in U.S. Soccer’s youth national team history. The team rebounded from a 2-1 deficit in the second half to find a way to win it 3-2.

With two starters in Alex Mendez and Chris Durkin suspended, Ramos went for an attacking starting lineup and did not try to bunker against the favored French team. That being said, France still controlled possession for long stretches early in the game.

But it was the U.S. team that got on the board first in the 25th minute when Brandon Servania forced a turnover in his half. He got the ball to Richie Ledezma who carried the ball through the midfield and played Sebastian Soto with a ball that sent Soto in alone on French keeper Alban Lafont. Soto coolly finished to give the Americans a 1-0 lead against the run of play.

France battled back and equalized in the 41st minute on a lightening quick counterattack which began in their own half and ended with a Amine Gouiri goal. In early in the second half in 55th minute, France pulled ahead when Nabil Alioui put a rebound past Brady Scott to give France a 2-1 lead.

At that moment, things were looking very poor for the U.S. team. Many players were fatiguing and France was playing like one of the best U-20 teams in the world.

But the critical moment came in the 63rd when Ulysses Llanez and Justin Rennicks came into the game in for Konrad de la Fuente and a very tired Richard Ledezma. The subs helped bring much needed life to the team.

Soto equalized in the 74th minute when he took a wonderful ball from Tim Weah and moved in alone on Lafont and found the back of the net.

Then in the 83rd minute, the U.S. found the winner when Sergino Dest hit a very hard shot from distance which Lafont spilled. Rennicks very quickly pounced on the rebound for the winning goal. Minutes later, Rennicks and Soto nearly combined for a fourth goal when Rennicks played Soto into the box alone in close range. This time, however, Lafont would do well to break up the chance.

For the remaining minutes, the U.S. team played very strong defense to close the game out. When the final whistle sounded, there was much celebration. For the third straight cycle, the U.S. team advanced to the quarterfinals – which has repeatedly been a stumbling block for the team. In 2003 it lost to Argentina in this round. In 2007 it was Austria. In 2015 it was a painful shootout loss to eventual champions Serbia. In 2017 the team was knocked out in this stage by Venezuela.

Now in 2019, the U.S. U-20 team will once again have a chance to advance to the semifinals. On Saturday it will face Ecuador for a spot in the final four.

Here are some quick thoughts for the win over France

Passing a gut-check

This game was a test of willpower and a gut-check at times. The team was fatigued from chasing the game from long stretches but somehow found another gear.

This is becoming a pattern under Ramos whose teams have been able to somehow win games on willpower. In 2015 it was the remarkable 1-0 win in the round of 16 game against Colombia. It also nearly defeated eventual champions Serbia after going toe-to-toe with them for 120 minutes. In 2017 it won CONCACAF for the first time and again returned to the quarterfinals.

This win against France was remarkable not just for the win, but the way which it achieved. The team has pulled off upsets but never against such a good opponent in a game where it actually trailed.

Dest and Gloster immense

One of the areas where this game was won was at the fullback positions. While Sergino Dest wasn’t strong defensively against Ukraine, he showed remarkable improvement against France. For 90 minutes he lived up to his potential on both sides of the ball. It was his shot which resulted in a rebound for the winning goal.

Gloster, meanwhile, isn’t quite as aggressive moving forward as Dest but he is very good when he decides to attack. But defensively, Gloster is so comfortable in 1v1 situations. When the fullbacks were playing as well as they did today, it takes a lot of stress off the defensive midfielders and central defenders.

Pomykal & Ledezma help

Without Alex Mendez, Ramos went with an attacking group with Paxton Pomykal and Richard Ledezma in the No. 8 positions. For the most part it worked. Ledezma hasn’t played much soccer over the past year but was first-rate in his first start at the World Cup.

Pomykal wasn’t quite the same after an injury in the first half but fought through it and was sharper in the second half during the comeback. Pomykal stepped up defensively in the absence of Chris Durkin. Ramos went with Brandon Servania in the No.6 role but Pomykal was able to help him with support.

Soto’s torrid run

Sebastian Soto is having one of the best forward runs in U.S. U-20 history. It is rivaling the run from Josh Sargent in 2017. Soto is scoring against better teams but Sargent was younger and playing up a cycle.

Soto is proving himself at being very strong reading the game and getting the defensive line. He is also solid in controlling the ball and calmly finishing

It couldn’t have come at a better time as he has hit a stalemate with Hannover in terms of contract negotiations. Hannover, which was relegated to the 2.Bundesliga, might just see the best solution as selling Soto as opposed to letting him go for free.

Soto has a ton of leverage right now and his performance in Poland should give him options. But now it is just a question of making a smart decision with a club as to where he can actually play first team minutes. He is beyond the U-19 Bundesliga and cannot afford to sit on the bench.

The subs changed the game

Uly Llanez and Justin Rennicks were huge sparks for the U.S. team at a time when it appeared as if the game was slipping away from the Americans. Llanez was a huge creative force on the wings and it really appeared as if de la Fuente was fading after playing in all of the previous games.

Rennicks has been a big payer for the team throughout the cycle but was injured in the March friendlies which hurt his chances for minutes in Poland. But he has played very well for this team in the past and was very energetic off the bench. Even aside from the goal, Rennicks tested the French backline and nearly picked up an assist.

On the goal, Rennicks was extremely quick to react to the dropped ball. A split second later, Lafont gets to it first. It was just a great instinctive play.

Looking ahead to Ecuador

The good news is that Ramos should have a full slate of players for the big game against Ecuador. It is hard to predict what lineup Ramos will use given that only he, his staff, and the players will know the fitness levels of several of the key players on his team.

Ledezma was great against France but it is hard to see him starting against Ecuador given how tired he was by the 55th minute and with limited rest before Ecuador on Saturday. It seems like a safe bet that Mendez will rejoin Pomykal in those two No. 8 positions – assuming that Pomykal is okay after playing through that knock from the first half onward.

Another big question mark is Konrad de la Fuente. Will Ramos elect to use Llanez from the start? It is possible given that de la Fuente looked tired but Llanez, like Ledezma, hasn’t played much in 2019.

In the backline, the ongoing issue is where Mark McKenzie is in the state of his return from his appendectomy surgery. Ramos has been reluctant to break-up the Chris Richards-Aboubacar Keita central defense pairing. Richards has been one of the best central defenders in Poland but will Ramos feel McKenzie is ready to take Keita’s place? That will all come down to training.

Brandon Servania and Chris Durkin in the No. 6 role will likely go to Durkin against Ecuador but Servania is not out of the picture. Servania has come up at big moments in this tournament – scoring against Ukraine, drawing a penalty against Qatar and starting the build-up to the winning goal against Qatar. Against France, Servania started the build-up to the opening goal.

No matter what, Ramos has the faith of his players and has made a lot of right decisions – both with his lineups and with his substitutions. The U.S. team is improving over the course of its time in Poland. Ecuador will be challenging but the U.S. team should feel confident.

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