Ecuador knocked the US U-20’s out of the World Cup in the quarterfinals on Saturday. It was the third consecutive iteration of the competition where the US bowed out at this stage. So what did we learn?
Chris Richards - No other US U-20’s stock rose more than his in this tournament. The Bayern Munich man was already highly rated, but he was an absolute rock on the backline. He routinely broke lines with his passing, found runners and switched play with over-the-top passes. In youth competitions, mistakes are common but you would be hard pressed to find many from the 19-year-old. He was consistently excellent throughout the World Cup. He should head back to Germany with his head held high after that performance.
Alex Mendez - The 18-year-old Freiburg midfielder was the focal point of the attack in many of the US matches. Most of the best opportunities that the US created in the group stage came through his creativity with the ball at his feet, whether that was creating space for a strike from distance or springing a runner in on goal. Recall that it was his tackle and assist on Timothy Weah’s game-winning goal against Qatar that allowed the US to finish second in the group. Mendez is not a complete player yet (surprise: none of these players are). He needs to be able to consistently impact games (he wasn’t able to do so against Ecuador). But this player has some technical tools (in particular a wand of a left foot) that could make him a truly special player. Hopefully he can hone that ability and become that star in Germany.
Paxton Pomykal - The 19-year-old FC Dallas midfielder performed well on the big stage. He was a constant outlet for his teammates and his passing and control under pressure were impressive. He also was one of the few players that showed some tackling bite in midfield. My one real critique is that I would have liked him to contribute more in the attack. He had zero goals or assists and Alex Mendez and Timothy Weah generated most of the dangerous attacking moves throughout the competition. Still, he showed that he can hang against quality competition. Look for FC Dallas to get some more offers this summer.
Chris Durkin - The 18-year-old DC United product struggled to convince, particularly on the defensive end. Too often the backline was exposed on counter attacks with little resistance from his position. Unfortunately, his worst game came at the worst time in the 2-1 loss to Ecuador. It wasn’t all bad, though. He did flash some of his quality passing and ability to hit long balls.
Aboubacar Keita - The 19-year-old was forced into action with Mark McKenzie’s fitness concerns. Keita had a few very strong moments defensively in this tournament, but he struggled under pressure. Ecuador aimed to press him into mistakes after what he had shown in the first several games and he obliged. The midfield left the Columbus Crew player hung out to dry on a few occasions, which made him look even worse. but he played hard and did his job. His quality just wasn’t what we were hoping to get with McKenzie.
How did I fare with my predictions?
Standout - Before the competition, I said that Ulysses Llanez would be the standout of the tournament for the US. That didn’t really happen seeing as how he didn’t even start any of the matches. However, he did perform well in each of his three appearances off the bench. And he should have had a game-tying assist in the Ecuador match when he slipped past multiple defenders and put it on a platter for Sebastian Soto. He played well but he wasn’t the US standout of the tournament. That was probably Richards. 0/1
X-Factor - I thought Alex Mendez’s set piece delivery would be crucial if the US were to make a deep run. Mendez did have a couple assists in the tournament and one was off a corner, but he would be the first to tell you that he didn’t take enough advantage of the opportunities he had in this regard. He also missed a penalty. I suppose you could make the argument that it was indeed an X-Factor, but not necessarily a positive one. 0/2
Biggest Potential Gain - I said Paxton Pomykal had the most to gain and he very well may have done so. He performed consistently well in midfield throughout the competition and may be on the move soon. 1/3
Cause for Excitement - I was most excited about the wing play that this group was capable of. Timothy Weah was one of the most active and creative players on the team in this tournament (2 goals and 2 assists) and Ulysses Llanez contributed very well off the bench. Konrad de la Fuente was far less influential, but he certainly acquitted himself nicely as well. Both Llanez and Konrad will be age-eligible for the 2021 tournament as well. Were the wingers the best group? Perhaps not, but they were definitely exciting. 2/4
Biggest Concern - I was scared about the defensive ability on this team and it unfortunately didn’t let me down. The US did keep a couple clean sheets in the group stage, but they still gave up six goals in five games. Too often the US midfield struggled to slow down opponents in transition and there were also several instances of individual errors. 3/5
Was the tournament a success?
This was a group that was talked about a lot in the lead-up to the event with how talented they were. On top of the players listed above, several others showed well in the event. Sebastian Soto took advantage of his opportunity and led the team in scoring. Chris Gloster was excellent defensively and was always dangerous combining and creating chances on the left flank. Ulysses Llanez was a huge spark off the bench in multiple games. Richie Ledezma showed off some outstanding ability to lead the attack when he spelled Mendez. Justin Rennicks was the hero against France’s vaunted U-20’s. Yes, it would have been nice to see them take the next step at this level instead of being knocked out in the quarterfinals for the third consecutive time. But the win over France in the round of 16 was extremely impressive in showing that they wouldn’t back down and bunker against a more talented opponent. That made this a successful tournament. If we can have four or five players from this group take that same skill, confidence and mentality and inject that into the senior team, it will be huge.
So what did you think of the competition? Hit the comment section to give your thougnts. Also name the three players you believe are most likely to feature regularly at the senior level.