It's difficult to predict how youth World Cups will unfold, because the history of the tournament is not a reliable indicator. Serbia beat Brazil, 2-1, in the final of the 2015 U-20 World Cup. But neither team qualified for the 2017 U-20 World Cup, which kicks off on Saturday.
In 2015, USA fell to Serbia in the quarterfinals in a penalty-kick shootout after a scoreless tie after beating Colombia, 1-0, in the round of 16. The USA, under Coach Tab Ramos for a third World Cup, begins Group F play on Monday against Ecuador, which hosted the South American qualifying campaign and finished runner-up to Uruguay.
US U-20s on TV: Fox Sports 1
Monday, May 22, 4 a.m ET, vs. Ecuador
Thursday, May 25, 7 a.m. ET vs Senegal
Sunday, May 28, 5 a.m ET vs. Saudi Arabia
"In the World Cup, any team can beat you," said Ramos. "Certainly by getting the runner-up team in South America as the first team that we play, we already start with a final. So in this tournament we cannot afford to gradually get better. ... Ecuador has a very potent attack, they can counter really well and so our pressure, if it gets broken at different times, they could create some difficult opportunities for us, just like they did when they beat Argentina 3-0 and when they tied Brazil [2-2]. They are extremely dangerous up front, but I think this will be a great experience for us and it's a game that we have to come out and that we feel that we have to win."
The USA, which beat Mexico in qualifying, arrives as Concacaf champion for the first time in history and earned a seed.
"Normally, we like to play the underdog role, and in this case, we remain underdogs but we go there as champions," Ramos said. "I hope that we can really take this new experience as a good one and that this becomes more the norm rather than the exception."
Sixteen of the 24 teams from six groups reach the knockout stage, which means the four third-place finishers join group winners and runners-up in the knockout stage, which the USA has achieved nine times in 14 appearances. But the USA pulled off wins in the second round only four times:
YEAR PLACE (W-L-T)
1989: 4th place (2-3-1) Coach Bob Gansler
2003: 5th place (3-2-0) Coach Thomas Rongen
2015: 7th place (3-1-1) Coach Tab Ramos
2007: 7th place (3-1-1) Coach Thomas Rongen
(PK shootout games are considered ties.)
The 1989 team that finished fourth in Saudi Arabia was comprised of high school seniors and collegians. Goalkeeper Kasey Keller was the tournament Silver Ball winner -- the MVP runner-up. Steve Snow scored three goals -- tied for second in the tournament behind the USSR’s Oleg Salenko, who also won the Golden Shoe playing for Russia at the 1994 World Cup.
1989 U-20 World Cup -- Back row: Dario Brose, Curt Onalfo, Kasey Keller, Ben Crawley, Steve Snow; Front row: Neil Covone, Mike Burns, Troy Dayak, Cam Rast, Chris Henderson, Bryan Thompson.
Since the U-20 World Cup expanded from 16 to 24 teams in 1997, the USA reached the quarterfinals three times, twice under Coach Thomas Rongen, in 2003 and in 2007, and under Ramos in 2015.
The U-20 national team program's success is, of course, also measured -- perhaps mainly -- on how it feeds into the full national team. From the 2007 team that beat both Brazil (with David Luiz, Marcelo, Willian and Alexandre Pato) and Uruguay (with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani), eight of the U.S. players earned full national team caps, but only four earned more than 10 caps: Robbie Rogers, Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, and only Altidore and Bradley played in a senior World Cup.
A significant number U-20 World Cup alums have stocked senior U.S. World Cup teams, although the number dipped in 2014, when Coach Jurgen Klinsmann's squad included seven foreign-raised players.
WORLD CUP YEAR --
U-20 WORLD CUP ALUMS
1990 -- 6
1994 -- 6
1998 -- 5
2002 -- 8
2006 -- 15
2010 -- 13
2014 -- 7
U-20 alums who reached the senior World Cup
So far, 35 U.S. players, including current U.S. U-20 coach Tab Ramos, made the jump from a U-20 World Cup squad to the big show. Ramos, who at age 16 was the youngest member of the 1983 U-20 World Cup squad, played at the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cups.
The most recent U-20 World Cup alum to appear on the biggest stage was DeAndre Yedlin, who played for Ramos’ team in 2013 and for Coach Jurgen Klinsmann at the 2014 World Cup.
Player U-20 World Cup/World Cup
John Stollmeyer 1981/1990
Paul Caligiuri 1983/1990, 1994
Tab Ramos 1983/1990, 1994, 1998
Hugo Perez 1983/1994
Tab Ramos played in the 1983 World Cup at age 16.
Tony Meola 1987/1990, 1994, 2002
Jeff Agoos 1987/1998, 2002
Marcelo Balboa 1987/1990, 1994, 1998
Kasey Keller 1987/1990, 1998, 2002, 2006
Mike Burns 1989/1994, 1998
Covone, Neil 1989/1990
Chris Henderson 1989/1990
Kasey Keller 1989/1990, 1998, 2002, 2006
Kasey Keller was Tony Meola's backup at the 1987 U-20 World Cup and won the Bronze Ball in 1989.
Gregg Berhalter 1993/2002, 2006
John O’Brien 1997/2002, 2006
Ben Olsen 1997/2006
Josh Wolff 1997/2002, 2006
Nick Rimando 1999/2014
Steve Cherundolo 1999/2002, 2006, 2010
Chris Albright 1999/2006
Carlos Bocanegra 1999/2006, 2010
Tim Howard 1999/2006, 2010, 2014
Oguchi Onyewu 2001/2006, 2010
DaMarcus Beasley 2001/2002, 2006, 2010, 2014
Brad Davis 2001/2014
Landon Donovan 2001/2002, 2006, 2010
Bobby Convey 2001/2006
Edson Buddle 2001/2010
Bobby Convey 2003/2006
Eddie Johnson 2003/2006
Ricardo Clark 2003/2010
Clint Dempsey 2003/2006, 2010, 2014
Jonathan Spector 2005/2010
Benny Feilhaber 2005/2010
Michael Bradley 2007/2010, 2014
Jozy Altidore 2007/2010, 2014
Mix Diskerud 2009/2014
DeAndre Yedlin 2013/2014
USA 2017 U-20 World Cup foes
• Previous appearances: 2001 (round of 16), 2011 (round of 16).
• 2015 U-20 World Cup: did not qualify
• Qualifying: Finished runner-up as host to Uruguay. Its nine games included two wins over Colombia (4-3 and 3-0), a 3-0 rout of Argentina and a 2-2 draw with Brazil. As host, Ecuador had an edge by playing its games at high-altitude venues.
• Key player: Midfielder Bryan Cabezas moved to Italy's Atalanta last year after making 68 appearances for Independiente del Valle, for which he played in the 2016 Copa Libertadores final. It finished runner-up to Colombia's Atletico Nacional.
• Previous appearances: 2015 (semifinals).
• 2015 U-20 World Cup: Finished third in Group C with a loss to Portugal (3-0), a tie with Colombia (1-1) and a win over Qatar (2-1). Beat Ukraine on PKs in the round of 16 after a 1-1 tie, beat Uzbekistan, 1-0, in the quarterfinals, and fell to eventual runner-up Brazil, 5-0, in the semifinals.
• Qualifying: Fell to host Zambia, 2-0, in the final after wins over Guinea, Cameroon, South Africa and a tie with Sudan.
• Key player: Midfielder Krepin Diatta, who was Man of the Match in two qualifying games, signed with Norwegian Tippeligaen club Sarpsborg 08 FF last month.
• Previous appearances: 1985 (group stage), 1987 (group stage), 1989 (group stage), 1993 (group stage), 1999 (group stage), 2003 (group stage), 2011 (round of 16).
• 2015 U-20 World Cup: did not qualify.
• Qualifying: Fell in the final of the Bahrain-hosted Asian championship to Japan on PKs after a scoreless tie. Beat South Korea, Iraq and Iran en route to the final.
• Key player: Captain Sami Al Naji, who has made seven appearance for his club Al Nassr in the Saudi top flight league, was the leading scorer at the Asian championship with four goals.
The USA U-20 World Cup RosterGOALKEEPERS (3): Jonathan Klinsmann (Univ. of California; Newport Beach, Calif.), J.T. Marcinkowski (Georgetown Univ.; Alamo, Calif.), Brady Scott (De Anza Force; Petaluma, Calif.).