The USA's 2019 Under-20 World Cup run came to an end at an all-too-familiar stage last week: the quarter-finals.
Saturday's 2-1 loss to Ecuador made it three straight last-eight exits in this competition, a frustrating reality, and for the second tournament running they were bettered by strong South American opposition.
But while a lack of tangible progress—at least in a literal sense—will irk the USYNT's following, it's worth remembering three things:
- Consistency at this level is difficult to maintain (2017 winners England didn't even qualify for this year's event)
- The Under-20 World Cup is volatile by its very nature; things can go very right or very wrong (pre-tournament favourites Portugal and France exited at the group stage and round of 16, respectively, the latter at the hands of the USA)
- This group of players led by Tab Ramos has a handful of gems in it that will undoubtedly strengthen the USMNT moving forward
It's that third point that is most exciting—and which we will examine further here. Almost every player Ramos utilised impressed in some way, the team playing some co-ordinated, swash-buckling stuff, allowing many to put their best foot forward. But the following five really turned some heads in Poland.
Chris Richards, 19, Centre-Back
Chris Richards used the Under-20 World Cup in Poland to underline his status as the most promising centre-back prospect the USA have had in years. He was probably the team's best player—even with Timothy Weah producing big moments and Sebastian Soto scoring four.
His brilliance was primarily sourced from his defensive positioning and nous. Time and again he was in position to make a vital tackle, block or clearance. He headed ball after ball out of the box, repelling crosses no matter who was swinging them in, and he produced a few excellent sliding tackles in recovery.
He also impressed in a proactive sense, pushing into midfield to intercept superbly. He averaged 6.2 interceptions per 90, continually dispossessing strikers and quashing potential counter-attacks at an early stage.
|USYNT Centre-Back Stylistic Comparison|
|Player||Pass accuracy||Long passes per 90||Long pass accuracy|
Richards' use of the ball was smooth and reliable, if a little timid at times. He completed a high percentage of passes, sent plenty sideways to his partner or full-back, and generally left the more ambitious, progressive passes to Aboubacar Keita.
That's less a criticism than a marker for what sort of player he is while in possession, though working alongside Niklas Sule, Benjamin Pavard and Mats Hummels at Bayern Munich might coax a little more from him in this area in the years to come.
Paxton Pomykal, 19, Central Midfield
There's a tendency among fans to judge youth prospects by the club they play for, but Paxton Pomykal is a lesson in why that's not always a particularly revealing factor.
Sergino Dest (Ajax), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich) and Konrad De La Fuente (Barcelona) all play for some of Europe's best, but Pomykal outperformed two of them in Poland despite being just 11 starts into a fledgling FC Dallas career in Major League Soccer.
He began the tournament on the left flank, but after not seeing enough of the ball in the first 45 minutes against Ukraine, he moved inside and began to find his groove. He's the most rounded midfielder Ramos had to call upon, melding both attacking and defensive skill sets into a diminutive, deceiving 5'7" frame.
On the ball he impressed in a variety of ways, be it via an accurate lofted pass, a dribble through a tight corridor or a quick give-and-go. He averaged 2.73 progressive runs per 90 minutes, the 12th-most at the tournament, more than dribble-happy teammate De La Fuente (2.21) and other top starlets, like Portugal's Francisco Trincao (2.49).
Off the ball he was just as important, tackling and fighting for possession willingly. His average of 6.8 ball recoveries per 90 wasn't far off defensive midfielder Chris Durkin's own average of 8.2 per 90, and his 10.7 defensive duels per 90 dwarfed most other midfielders'.
Alex Mendez, 18, Central Midfield
There's something so endearing, so intoxicating about a sweet left foot. Perhaps it's that those who favour the left peg are in far shorter supply, or perhaps it's the whipped way they tend to strike the ball.
Whatever it is, Alex Mendez has it.
He strikes the ball beautifully, be it from open play or dead ball. The corner he delivered for Sebastian Soto's opener against Nigeria was a thing of true beauty. He won't hesitate to shape a curling pass around the shoulder of a defender, locating a speeding winger in behind, or try his luck from range—his 12 shots from outside the box are a joint-tournament high.
That he didn't score from any of them paints an initial picture of wastefulness, but two hit the woodwork, two were superbly saved by Ukraine and Real Madrid goalkeeper Andriy Lunin in the opener, and two were foiled by Ecuador's Moises Ramirez in the quarter-final. He came closer than the raw statistics suggest.
Where Pomykal rumbles when he dribbles, low to the ground and quite rumbustious at times, Mendez drifts, glides even and makes moving between markers look quite effortless at times.
The disappointment for him will be his quarter-final performance, in which he never found any sort of rhythm and touched the ball too rarely. He struggled with the intensity and strength of Ecuador's midfield, so it's no mystery where his next area to improve lies.
Timothy Weah, 19, Forward
When the USA needed a big moment during this tournament, Timothy Weah invariably came through.
It was his dart-and-low-cross that got the Yanks back into the opening game against Ukraine; it was his brilliance that won the game against Qatar; and it was his sublime strike that pulled USA level with Ecuador in the quarter-final.
He played three different positions in five games, Ramos comfortable shifting him around the formation as he worked through a catalogue of attacking options in his squad. He started up front, was on the left wing by the halfway point of the first game and ended the tournament on the right flank to make room for Ulysses Llanez.
The flank suited him best, as it enabled him to drive forward with the ball at his feet, instigate quick periods of play and run off the shoulder of full-backs into the swathes of space in behind. It took an incredibly committed two-man effort from Ecuador's right to finally limit his influence in some way.
That he has an abundance of talent is not a secret and has not been for a long time. What arguably impressed most during this tournament was his ability to step up with moments of quality when required and lead his team through rough patches.
Sebastian Soto, 18, Forward
Sebastian Soto started the tournament out of the side, no doubt watching on frustratedly as his colleagues carved out chances that weren't finished against Ukraine.
He got 25 minutes off the bench in that game, taking up the striker's mantle (Weah moving to the left flank as a result), and then started the second game against Nigeria—a 2-0 win in which he scored both goals.
Rhythm established, he led the line ably against Qatar and then scored another brace as the USA sunk France in the round of 16. The quarter-finals didn't bring the same joy, though, as Soto missed a good close-range chance and came within an inch of converting a whipped cross with his studs.
He essentially played the role of poacher, focusing almost solely on forward runs and sniffing out chances. The USA's insistence on slower, patient build-up from the back meant Soto wasn't asked to bring in direct passes and then bring others into play (he only received 0.64 long passes per 90); instead, it was his movement in the final third that defined his game.
His out-to-in runs that drift outside of the centre-backs caused a series of inexperienced defenders a lot of trouble, and his ability to create a yard for himself in the box was impressive. He has a nose for a loose ball in the box, always alert to half-chances and scraps.
The hallmarks of a classic No. 9 are there.
Data via Wyscout.com
Progressive Run is defined as: A run of 30m that begins in the player's own half and ends in the opponent's half of the field; - a run of 10m that begins and ends entirely in the opponent's half.
All statistics via WhoScored.com.