Chances of the USA reaching the second round of the biennial U-20 World Cup for the first time since 2007 look a lot better since Tuesday's draw.
The draw grouped Coach Tab Ramos' team with debutant Myanmar, New Zealand, winless in three U-20 World Cup appearances, and Ukraine, Europe’s fifth-place team. But Ramos doesn’t consider his team the group favorite.
“Regardless of the group, I would never see us as a favorite,” said Ramos. “We have never been in position to be a favorite. I don’t think we are prepared to play as if we were a favorite. We have to go out there and grind out every game the way we always have, and do it one game at a time. …
“What I can tell you is this: Myanmar -- we're going to be prepared for them. We're going to prepare for them as we would against Germany or Argentina or anybody else.”
The USA’s best U-20 World Cup finish came in 1989, when Coach Bob Gansler’s team finished fourth place in Saudi Arabia. Since the tournament expanded to 24 teams in 1997, it reached the quarterfinals twice, both under Coach Thomas Rongen, in 2003 and 2007, when it beat both Brazil and Uruguay.
Ten players from those three squads would make senior World Cup rosters: Kasey Keller (1989 U-20 World Cup), Chris Henderson (1989), Mike Burns (1989), Neil Covone (1989), Clint Dempsey (2003), Eddie Johnson (2003), Bobby Convey (2003), Ricardo Clark (2003), Michael Bradley (2007) and Jozy Altidore (2007).
But the USA exited in the first round in 2009 and failed to qualify in 2011, after which Ramos took over for Rongen.
Ramos’ 2013 team sparkled in the qualifying tournament, finishing second to Mexico after taking the host to overtime in the final. But a brutal draw grouped it with Spain, France and Ghana in Turkey and it exited in the first round, falling to Spain (4-1), tying eventual champ France (1-1) and losing to 4-1 to Ghana, which ended up finishing third.
But Ramos didn’t complain about the draw then and still sees it a positive.
“Two years ago, I did think that was a good draw for us because it guaranteed that our players would get three big games,” he says.
Ramos also said that this gauging an opponents’ strength is difficult at this age level.
“Last U-20 World Cup, France won it,” he said. “This World Cup, they’re not even in it. This World Cup you have Argentina and Brazil, and Argentina won the South American championship -- and last time neither made it to the World Cup. Every two years you have countries that perform on a completely different level than the last time. It's hard to predict."
New Zealand hosts the tournament May 30-June 20. Ramos says he’ll be viewing videotapes of his team’s foes.
“At U-20s, if you have two or three very good players who can make a difference, all of a sudden your team can win games,” he says. “Myanmar, I really don’t much at all about them. I’ve been through all their players and have seen what clubs they play for, but that doesn’t really ring a bell.
“New Zealand, I don’t especially know how talented this group is. I know they’ve been training together and they’re well prepared and obviously they’re home team, so you have to deal with that.
”We know Ukraine has always been competitive and they’re a lot like Russia and they do have skillful players and physically they’re a strong team.”
Ramos and Jurgen Klinsmann are due to discuss whether Emerson Hyndman and/or Rubio Rubin, who’ve been capped by Klinsmann, will go to the U-20 World Cup or the full national team. Hyndman played for Ramos in qualifying but Rubin wasn’t released by AZ, the Dutch club he’s starring for. Also in the running is Arsenal reserve team player Gedion Zelalem, who’s awaiting confirmation for U.S. eligibility from FIFA.
“I know from speaking to Emo [Hyndman] he's counting on going with us to the World Cup,” Ramos said. “I know he's excited about it. ... Our U-20 national team is here so we can pass players on to the senior team. That means whatever happens, it’s a good scenario for them.”
On how many changes there might be from the team that qualified with a third-place finish in the Concacaf Championship:
“I would say four or five, but I don't know at this point,” Ramos says. “This World Cup is coming up so soon. I don't know because these are young players and there may be a couple guys out there who all of a sudden pop up for their first teams who I haven't seen -- and those are guys we take a look at.”
Last time around, DeAndre Yedlin joined Ramos’ team after qualifying and started all three U-20 World Cup games. A year later, he played at the World Cup in Brazil.