The U20’s finished Group C play in the 2016 U20 WWC with a lackluster 1-1 draw against Ghana. The United States never really took hold of this match and looked to fade considerably as the match wore on. Ghana opened the scoring in the 20’ on a ball played on goal from around 40 yards out that goalkeeper Casey Murphy misplayed into her own net. Just two minutes later Mallory Pugh put the entire team on her back, beat three Ghanaian defenders, and equalized the score. The U20’s will advance out of Group C as the top team due to the Fair Play tiebreaker having earned fewer yellow cards than France.
U20’s top the group but don’t impress
Soccer is a game of results and for that reason it can be quite a frustrating sport to parse because ostensibly the U20’s won their group. And yet, there’s not really a cohesive sense of what this team is after three matches. Sometimes the teams that play the most beautiful style and create the most interesting chances don’t win. Other times teams seem to grind out results in relatively inelegant ways and get rewarded for that. It’s not that the U20’s are incapable of playing beautiful soccer, in fact, they demonstrated in spots against New Zealand that they can move the ball quickly and interchange to create beautiful attacking football. But often they find themselves stuck on the ball, seemingly disappearing as a team for long periods of the match, and that hinders their effectiveness as a group.
For two matches in a row, the U20’s have relied on individual brilliance to get results and that is not a sustainable way to progress through a tournament. At some point they’ll have to start consistently creating chances from the run of play. Further, they’re earning a lot of set pieces and haven’t converted on those this tournament. All of these factors become amplified in the knockout stages when simply getting a result isn’t enough anymore.
Department of Defense, Junior
If you look at the U20’s performance thus far from a defensive soccer perspective it’s been a great tournament. One clean sheet, two goals conceded in three matches, and one of those goals was a rare mistake by Casey Murphy. So from the perspective of what United States fans are used to, which is scoring buckets of goals and steamrolling opponents, it’s been fairly lackluster. But in terms of getting results and playing defensive soccer, the U20’s have gotten three results in three matches and look incredibly organized in the back.
Ellie Jean, in particular, has been a revelation at left back. When she’s engaged in all three phases of the game the U20’s come alive. When the opposing team pins Jean back in the defensive third that’s when the U20’s start to lose their steam in attack and things get difficult. She flies up and down that left flank and gets consistent service into the box when she’s at her best and she’s been at her best often this tournament. Remember that name, considering the state of things at left back on the senior team it wouldn’t be surprising to see Jean get a call up in the next couple of years.
Lack of Rotation May Haunt French
Michelle French only made one change - Jessie Scarpa in for Savannah Demelo - from the team that played New Zealand three days ago. As the game against Ghana wore on, it became evident that this United States team is tired. Papua New Guinea is a climate that is both hot and humid, that’s draining even when you’re controlling the matches. Think back to the first match against France where the U20’s chased the game in the sun for 90 minutes. Then look at the break neck speed they played with against New Zealand. The second half of this match against Ghana they were just plain tired and played like it.
Mallory Pugh and Ashley Sanchez both have played at least 90 minutes in every match of this tournament. There’s three days in between this final group match and the quarterfinal match, the same amount of time between the second group match and the third. Is that enough time for the U20’s to recover their legs? The only saving grace is Pugh’s equalizer coming two minutes after Ghana’s goal means the U20’s didn’t have to chase this game for too long.
Only time will tell if the lack of squad rotation was a mistake. If the U20’s fall behind early in their quarterfinal matchup, that’ll be the real test of grit for these young Americans.