The United States Under-20 team failed to qualify in 2011, and with a loss on Monday, it could face a similar result in this year’s edition of the CONCACAF Under-20 tournament.
But Team USA isn’t accustomed to coming up short in Under-20 affairs. In 2004 and 2007, the United States reached the quarterfinals after terrific showings in the group stage, and Monday’s contest with France will be a tremendous opportunity to build on that success in this year’s edition.
For France, success hasn’t been so easy to find. After years of underachieving in the tournament, France took fourth place in 2011 and enters this match with three points in the group stage, only one goal behind Spain in the tables.
With plenty of talent on both sides, there’s no reason to expect anything less than an exciting match with big implications in the group tables.
Let’s take a look at the vitals for this match and highlight a key player to watch from each side of this CONCACAF Under-20 affair.
Where: Ali Sami Yen Arena; Istanbul, Turkey
When: Monday, June 24, at 11 a.m. ET
Television/Streaming: ESPN2, WatchESPN, Univision Deportes
France coach Pierre Mankowski is like every other coach in his praise of his team. As quoted by Ian Holyman of ESPN, the 61-year-old believes there isn’t a player on the French Under-20 squad who is better than the rest:
I think the advantage of this team is that there isn't one player who's head and shoulders above the others. There are a lot of players who are at a very high level. When you have key elements, such as Paul, Samuel, Geoffrey, Lucas, who are leaders, that pulls the whole squad upwards. But it's not just one player who'll make the difference. They're all aware of that.
While much of that is true, there’s something to be said for having a player like Paul Pogba to lead the team. Mankowski won’t admit it, but Pogba will arguably be the brightest star on the pitch when the two sides face off.
The Juventus midfielder is a tremendous talent who sets the tone for the French side, and he’ll play a big role in directing his team in this Under-20 clash.
The 20-year-old has had his share of negative press and admits he still has some growing up to do before he can be one of the top footballers in the world, though. As quoted by Goal.com, Pogba wants to be the best but knows he has a long way to go:
I want to become the best in the world and win the Ballon d'Or. But to do that I have to avoid being late for training and getting suspended. Spitting at Aronica? You shouldn’t do it, it's not nice.
I do not have a swelled head, I know where I come from, I only have a strong personality. I am direct, and most importantly I know where I'm going.
He may have some growing up to do, but Pogba has all the talent to be one of the best players in the world. He’ll have a chance to prove that against Team USA on Monday.
Team USA couldn’t manage to carry momentum from a 3-1 win over Portugal into the Under-20 tournament, but Monday’s game will be a terrific opportunity to rebound from an opening-match loss to Spain and pick up steam in the group stage.
In that pre-tournament win over Portugal, midfielder Joe Villarreal opened things up in the first 10 minutes in netting a free kick for a 1-0 lead. His early goal set the tone for Team USA, and he’ll be expected to play a similar role against France on Monday.
To understand Villarreal’s importance to the team, it’s vital to realize how important he is to his professional club. The midfielder wasn’t allowed to participate in the Toulon Tournament due to his key role with the LA Galaxy. As quoted by Scott French of MLSSoccer.com, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena couldn’t afford to let Villarreal join the U.S. team early:
I think the world championship for the young players, we think that's important. In the case of Oscar, Oscar isn't playing at all with us; we can let him go. Jose's been in our team, we're going to hold him back as long as necessary.
With Villarreal free to make his impact at the international level, he’ll no doubt be an exciting player to watch when Team USA and France square off. If the 19-year-old can set the tone for the American side, things could get very interesting in the group stage of the tournament.
Prediction: USA 2, France 2
Team USA is going to have a hard time slowing France’s impressive attack, but it also counters with a formidable front line capable of scoring enough goals to stem the tide.
Provided the U.S. defense can pick up the pace and play more aggressively than it did against Spain, it wouldn’t be unexpected for Team USA to take an early lead in this contest and hold on for a close finish and at least one point in the group table.