On Saturday, we’ll find out whether the USA will qualify for the U-20 World Cup.
The winner of the USA-El Salvador playoff will earn one of the Concacaf region’s four spots at the U-20 World Cup that kicks off in May in New Zealand.
It shouldn’t have come to this. Coach Tab Ramos’ team should have finished atop its six-team group to clinch a spot, the way Mexico did in Group B. Instead, the Group A crown went to Panama, which beat the USA, 1-0.
Panama is a nation of 3.8 million people – the same as Los Angeles proper. It has never qualified for the senior World Cup. It’s better known for producing baseball players than soccer stars. One can only imagine how many more millions of dollars the U.S. Soccer Federation spends on youth development than Panama does.
Before the loss to Panama, the USA tied, 1-1, with Guatemala, another nation that has never qualified for the World Cup and has a fraction of the resources dedicated to the sport than the USA. (The Chapines’ tying goal was scored in spectacular fashion by U.S. resident Andy Ruiz, who joined the FC Dallas academy program this season.)
The next opponent, Aruba, whose entire soccer-playing population wouldn’t fill the stands of the stadium in Jamaica the game was played in, was no problem. The USA won, 8-0.
A 2-0 win over host Jamaica, which went winless in the tourney, and a 1-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago, earned the USA the playoff with El Salvador.
The good news being that the Americans bounced back from a dismal start to win three straight games and can still qualify. What’s disturbing about this team is how poorly it compares to Ramos’ team the last time around.
That team was a delight to watch. It had style and rhythm.
Ramos took over the U-20s after they failed to qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup and his team’s play during qualifying for the 2013 U-20 World Cup was one of the greatest tournament performances in U.S. national team history.
It won four straight games and in the final against Mexico -- winner of the previous U-17 World Cup and third-place finisher at the U-20 World Cup two years earlier -- took the host to overtime before falling, 3-1.
At the World Cup in Turkey, Ramos’ team had the worst possible draw: Spain, France and Ghana. It lost to Spain, 4-1, but in the first half had more possession against a team that usually doesn't let the opponent have the ball for more than a few seconds at a time. Ramos’ team got burned on counterattacks, but because we finally had a coach who tried to beat a world power instead of being satisfied with a narrow loss.
It tied, 1-1, against France, the eventual winner that featured Paul Pogba, and the USA was eliminated with a 4-1 loss to Ghana, which went on to finish third.
The hope was that, despite the losses at the U-20 World Cup, the USA would continue pursuing to master the style of play that Ramos’ first U-20 team played. It was certainly much more successful against the regional opponents than the current squad.
But this team is grinding its way through the tournament in the traditional American manner.
There are so many questions about why we don’t see more year-to-year progress with our national teams. Our U-17s and U-23s failed to qualify out of Concacaf for their last two world championships. Costa Rica did much better than the USA at the 2014 World Cup.
Obviously, having hundreds of thousands more players than our regional opponents and investing millions more dollars doesn’t matter once it's 11-v-11.
Missing is the style of play. Ramos’ team of two years ago was on the right track. What went wrong? Did Ramos veer because his boss is Jurgen Klinsmann, whose team, built around German products, plays a style very unlike like Ramos’ 2013 team?
Or Ramos’ players haven’t played together enough to master the teamwork required for outsmarting instead of outmuscling the opponent?
Perhaps the latter is the case, and on Saturday against El Salvador, Ramos’ team will finally find its rhythm.