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2017 U-20 World Cup Preview: USA

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The United States embarks on yet another youth World Cup. Can they top their 2015 finish?

Two years ago Tab Ramos led a very talented group of Americans to the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand where they lost to eventual champion Serbia in penalties. It was a bitter way for such a promising crop of talent to see their cycle end. With his success, Ramos has been the subject of several coaching and/or upper management rumors since then. However, he’s yet to find an offer enticing enough to leave his post of USMNT U-20 head coach. The former national team great is set to embark on his third World Cup as U-20 coach and does so with another exciting group of talent looking to possibly advance even further than their predecessors did.

Unlike any previous teams, this one comes into the World Cup off the heels of winning their regional championship. Their triumph at the CONCACAF Championship gives this team a boost heading into this gathering of the world’s best teams. Ramos believes that despite their title of regional champions, they still feel they carry the label of underdogs with them.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how the team responds to [coming in as champions],” Ramos said in a teleconference following the official roster announcement. “Normally we like to play the underdog role, and in this case I think although we remain underdogs we go over there as champions...”

The collection of 21 players that Ramos selected for this tournament is a wide-ranging one that consists of players playing in college all the way to players who have played in the FA Cup. Although he wasn’t permitted the use of some of his preferred choices due to European clubs not cooperating, he maintains that he’s very happy with the talent he has at his disposal.

“As far as the roster is concerned, I’m very happy with the roster that we have,” Ramos said.

“This is a talented age group, and regardless of whether we can say, is someone missing or not here or who else we could have to make the team better, I still think that the guys that are here will represent us well and that we have a good team.”

Optimism is always high going into a youth World Cup. Everyone wants to believe that the current group of prospects is the real deal. There are certainly good players on this team, but there is cause for concern that the best players were either not called up or not released as was the case with Schalke’s Americans. While there’s a reason to be worried that this team isn’t as good as it could have been, there’s also cause to be optimistic about the players that are here. There’s some very talented individuals and while some of them might not be high profile or play for prestigious clubs, that’s what this World Cup is for — for them to make a name for themselves.

Roster

GOALKEEPERS (3): Jonathan Klinsmann (University of California; Newport Beach, Calif.), J.T. Marcinkowski (Georgetown; Alamo, Calif.), Brady Scott (De Anza Force; Petaluma, Calif.)

DEFENDERS (7): Danny Acosta (Real Salt Lake; Salt Lake City, Utah), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur FC; Westcliff-on-Sea, England), Auston Trusty (Philadelphia Union; Media, Pa.), Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake; Tucson, Ariz.), Aaron Herrera (University of New Mexico; Las Cruces, N.M.), Erik Palmer-Brown (Sporting Kansas City; Lee's Summit, Mo.), Tommy Redding (Orlando City SC; Oviedo, Fla.)

MIDFIELDERS (5): Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls; Wappingers Falls, N.Y.), Luca De La Torre (Fulham FC; San Diego, Calif.), Derrick Jones (Philadelphia Union; Philadelphia, Pa.), Eryk Williamson (University of Maryland; Alexandria, Va.), Gedion Zelalem (Arsenal FC; Bethesda, Md.)

FORWARDS (6): Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers; Bethesda, Md.), Lagos Kunga (Atlanta United FC Academy; Tucker, Ga.) Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake; Paradise Valley, Ariz.), Emmanuel Sabbi (Unattached; Columbus, Ohio), Josh Sargent (St. Louis Scott Gallagher Missouri; O'Fallen, Mo.), Sebastian Saucedo (Real Salt Lake; Park City, Utah)

Group Schedule

May 22: Ecuador vs. United States (4:00 a.m. ET, FS1)

The U.S. kick off the World Cup with a tough match-up against Ecuador, a team that maneuvered through a tightly-contested CONMEBOL qualifying tournament and beat out the likes of Brazil and Colombia. Their squad features just three players who play their club soccer outside of their home nation. Bryan Cabezas, an attacking midfielder who plays for Atalanta in Serie A and has appeared once for the senior national team, is their most recognizable player. He scored a total of six goals in qualifying and will be a handful for the likes of Tyler Adams and/or Derrick Jones in the U.S. midfield.

Keeping possession and not turning the ball over in dangerous spots will be crucial as it always is with South American teams. They loved to hit on the counter-attack with their tremendous pace and technique. Controlling the play and tempo early in the match to overcome any early tournament jitters will be important too. If the U.S. can avoid making the early mistakes and settle into the match well they’ll be in a great position to start off the World Cup with a much-needed positive result

May 25: Senegal vs. United States (7:00 a.m. ET, FS1)

Senegal finished as runner-ups in the CAF qualifying tournament, losing 2-0 to Zambia in the final. Ousseynou Diagne, Krépin Diatta, and Ibrahima Niane each scored twice in qualifying to be their joint top scorers. This is the second time Senegal has earned a ticket to a U-20 World Cup. In 2015, their first appearance, they made it all the way to the semifinals before losing to Brazil and then losing to Mali in the third-place match. This will likely be another difficult match for the U.S. as they try to navigate their group and reach the knockout stages.

May 28: Saudi Arabia vs. United States (5:00 a.m. ET, FS1)

The Baby Yanks conclude group play with Saudi Arabia, who were also runner-ups in their region. They lost to Japan in the AFC Championship final on penalties. They were lucky to make it that far as they clinched their World Cup bid in the quarterfinals of the tournament in penalties against Iraq. Luck was clearly on their side in the entire tournament as their passage to the knockout round was thanks to their goal differential. On paper, this appears to be the match for the U.S. to pick up full points. However, let’s hope that it won’t be a necessity on the final group match day.

USA’s Projected Lineup

GK: Klinsmann Jr. got the starting nod in qualifying. I don’t think anything’s changed between then and now. He’ll likely be the man between the posts in South Korea.

DEF: Stop me if you’ve heard this before. A U.S. Soccer team doesn’t have a natural left back on its roster. That’s the biggest question for me regarding the backline. Who plays LB? I’ve slotted in Trusty, because he just seems trustworthy at that spot. With Marlon Fossey’s departure from camp due to injury, look for Danny Acosta to take his place on the right side. Cameron Carter-Vickers is also recovering from an injury he picked up earlier in the year. If his availability is in question too, there could be some major question marks for Tab Ramos.

MID: Power, aggression, finesse. That’s the combination I’ve chosen for the midfield trio. Derrick Jones is huge and physical and will be able to protect the back four. Tyler Adams can do it all. Earning the flattering nickname of AmeriKante by our pals at Once A Metro, he flies all over the field closing ballhandlers down and winning possession for his team. He should be one of the first names on Ramos’ teamsheets. Then you have the “veteran” Gedion Zelalem who is participating in his second U-20 World Cup. He’ll need to be more aggressive if he is to assume the No. 10 role for the USA. There’s no doubting his ability to pick out a pass or keep possession, but the ability to create going forward as always been the missing piece in his game.

ATT: Honestly, this was the most difficult part to project. Jeremy Ebobisse was the team’s leading scorer all throughout this cycle but was rendered ineffective in qualifying. There’s a reason that Ramos went out of his way to promote Josh Sargent from the U-17’s. I don’t think he did it just to use the youngster as a super sub. If you’re going to make a bold move, you have to back it up and use him. Look for the talented No. 9 to get his big chance to shine.

Brooks Lennon starts. I’ll bet everything I own in this world on that fact. Most likely he’ll be on the right as he was in qualifying, but I’m not ready to add that stipulation to my wager. The opposite flank is where it gets murky. There are a couple of options. I chose Sebastian Saucedo over the likes of Luca de la Torre and Lagos Kunga because he’s just a natural fit. de la Torre is more of an attacking midfielder and Kunga, to me, is obviously a change of pace option off the bench against tired legs. Saucedo gets the nod for me but I’m probably wrong.

Random Thoughts/Coverage Plans

Are there players missing from this team that we all wanted to see? Yes. Does that ruin the team’s chances to advance far? I don’t think so. Should you be excited to watch some of the best young American players play against the world’s best? Yes. Do I like asking questions to myself just to answer them? Absolutely.

Spoiler alert alert: I have no life and will be recapping these matches in real time early in the morning on the site. If you’re someone who DVR’s the matches and doesn’t want to know the results (Side note: How do people do this? I’ve literally never been able to not look up the score before watching a taped sporting event.), I recommend avoiding SSFC until you’ve watched the matches.

I’m probably more excited for this World Cup than I am the USMNT’s upcoming summer schedule (I mean, it’s really just two matches that we all know the outcomes of already and a B-team Gold Cup). So, I hope you’re ready for some fun U-20 action and I’ll do my best to keep you as updated as possible throughout the tournament.

Please let me know in the comments your thoughts on the tournament and if you’ll be up watching. I’ll do my best to have individual match threads up for you to participate in for those who are.