Despite falling to Serbia after penalties, there is little doubt that the latest U-20 campaign was the most successful in recent memory for the United States. Prior to this year’s tournament, the most successful U-20 run was the 2007 iteration featuring names like Altidore, Bradley, and the infamous Adu.
That campaign ended with a loss to Austria in extra time during the quarterfinals, a fairly surprising result given the star power that was to emerge from that age group. This year’s team bowed out on the same stage, exiting at the hands of an organized Serbian side that proved to be one bridge too far.
For an American group that was positively battered by Ukraine in their final group match and withstood a veritable barrage at the hands of Colombia, the match against Serbia was the culmination of an incredibly grueling endeavor that saw the United States outmuscled with alarming regularity.
Long the hallmark of an American team, the athleticism of Ukraine and Colombia was extraordinarily problematic during the American run to the quarters, with the coup de grace delivered after yet another brawl with the Serbs.
The toll of this tournament can be seen in the injuries accumulated by American players over the course of the tournament. Maki Tall and Bradford Jamieson IV were forced out as a result of significant injuries, none more terrifying than Jamieson’s concussion suffered during the match with Columbia. Despite the many obstacles, however, there were plenty of positive trends that emerged during this team’s run in a tournament the United States had failed to qualify for two times running.
A significant improvement in possession, the emergence of not one but two dangerous strikers, and the consolidation of a solid defense all bode well for the future of the United States Men’s National Team moving forward.
For those few American soccer fans that might have been stranded on a desert isle for the past year or so, the 2015 U-20 World Cup was the culmination of relentless hype and rumor in the form of Gedion Zelalem finally donning an American jersey in competition.
Despite playing a paltry 35 minutes in the first match against Myanmar, Zelalem had a breakout performance against New Zealand that only added to his legend and elevated American dreams for his future. Zelalem exhibited a flair and calm on the ball that has never been seen before in an American player. He managed to control the tempo and flow of the New Zealand match in a manner that was awe-inspiring, despite the relative weakness of the opposition.
From a delightful rabona across the face of goal to dancing away from multiple defenders with incredible ease, Zelalem showed creativity and mastery of the game with possession at a level rarely seen in any American side. As a result of the influence of Zelalem, and a player like Emerson Hyndman, the United States has shown itself capable of utilizing a more possession oriented approach to the game, a development more in line with Herr Klinsmann’s vision for the American program as a whole.
Zelalem and Hyndman showed such quality with the ball at their feet that it is hard to imagine both players not making it to the senior level in relatively short order. Adding more intrigue to the development of players with true ability with the ball at their feet has been the addition of multiple players up front that proved themselves capable of ruthless finishing.
More than the emergence of a single player, this tournament has to be known to American soccer fans as the one where future striking options emerged beyond Jozy Altidore, who has been the first-team striker for seemingly decades. Young Maki Tall opened the tournament by equalizing against Myanmar with a finish as worthy of praise for its acrobatics as its impact.
Despite missing an absolute sitter thereafter that would have given the United States a 2-1 advantage, Tall consistently showed himself to be a threat to score at any time in pressuring relentlessly opposing defenders and methodically putting the ball on goal. As was previously mentioned, Tall had the misfortune of being ruled out for six to eight weeks after the match against Myanmar, a development that only served to give one of his striking partners an opportunity to flourish.
During year’s tournament, Rubio Rubin registered a point in every game that saw the United States score in regulation, tallying twice and providing the assist to Emerson Hyndman’s winner against Myanmar. As one of the few entrenched starters playing top-tier soccer, Rubin came into the U-20 World Cup with the opportunity to be a leader for this American team, and his performance was nothing short of stellar.
Tied for the American lead in goals at two with Hyndman, Rubin remains the most prolific American attacking option in his age group, especially with two of his teammates laid low by injuries. His performance against Serbia was limited by a gameplan that was geared towards defense over pressing for goals, yet that takes nothing away from the fact that Rubin was very, very good for the United States. Moving forward, American fans should have nothing but the loftiest expectations for the American attack at the senior level.
Finally, despite an absolute flogging at the hands of Ukraine’s Viktor Kovalenko, the American defense was sensational throughout this most recent tournament. Cameron Carter-Vickers, who has been discussed at length here previously, and Matthew Miazga were outstanding in central defense, long the bane of the American senior team.
For years, the entire American defense has seemed to be constantly in flux, with a revolving door of players and pairings giving their best efforts to forestall goals, only to fail miserably and be replaced in short order. With Carter-Vickers and Miazga, the future of the national team looks to be in good hands.
The pair of centerbacks proved themselves more than capable of consistently winning aerial duels, showed an ability to use their positioning and feet to make tackles instead of fouls, and demonstrated fantastic chemistry that is the basis for any good central pairing.
Bolstering the consolidation of central defense was the emergence of Desevio Payne, a starting right-back in the Eredivisie with FC Groningen, who was a revelation for the United States after seeming to appear from nowhere on the American radar. With his series of solid performances this tournament, Payne has entered a suddenly crowded field jockeying for the role of right-back in Jürgen Klinsmann’s senior team, with an appearance after the Gold Cup this summer not outside the realm of possibility.
Zach Steffen, the starting goalkeeper for this squad, had an extremely impressive tournament, proving once more that goalkeeper for the United States is in good hands for the foreseeable future, and well beyond. Despite the loss against a physical and imposing Serbia, fans of American soccer have plenty to be excited about as the United States Men’s National Team continues into the post-World Cup era.
Based on what the world has seen from the 2015 U-20 World Cup, the future is bright indeed.