Coach Tab Ramos
Against Saudi Arabia, central defender Cameron Carter-Vickers was ejected shortly before halftime.
“The effort that the guys made today, especially being down a man for 47 minutes … and still being able to hold on to get the result, I think was tremendous,” said Ramos. “The players should be going into the next round with a lot of confidence. We took first place [in our group], and that's exactly where we wanted to be.”
The USA faces New Zealand in the round of 16 on Thursday -- the next stage of what has been a roller-coaster ride in South Korea.
Ramos’ team went down 2-0 after seven minutes in its opener against Ecuador, but came back twice for a 3-3 tie against the South American runner-up. In its second game, the USA won, 1-0, against Senegal, the Africa runner-up that finished fourth at the 2015 U-20 World Cup.
The momentum the USA brought into its final group game, in which it took a 1-0 lead with Brooks Lennon’s 40th-minute goal, stalled in the 45th minute with Carter-Vickers’ ejection for his second yellow card within five minutes.
The silver lining: Despite conceding a 74th minute goal, the USA’s 1-1 tie was still good enough for first place in Group F.
“Being a man down you have to adjust a little bit, so we went to a 4-4-1, leaving Josh [Sargent] by himself up top, and giving Luca [de la Torre] the opportunity to get up the field on the left side, which he did really well,” Ramos said. “We were already getting good work from Brooksy [Lennon] on the right side, so I thought that kept the game level and gave us an opportunity to hold on to the ball.”
Against Ecuador, the USA lost its playmaker, Gedion Zelalem, to a knee injury in the first half. Against the Saudis, besides Carter-Vickers, Aaron Herrera and Derrick Jones got yellow cards, ruling all three players out of Thursday's game against New Zealand.
“It's difficult anytime you go down a player,” Ramos said. “We lost Gedion and now we have a few guys suspended, but I believe in this team, and so whoever has an opportunity to play, I'm sure they're going to do a great job and we're ready to go the next game.”
By winning the group, the USA gets an extra day of rest.
“It's going to help us a lot,” Ramos said. “I think we need the extra day. I think it gives us an opportunity to get Justen [Glad] a little bit more ready. And rest guys like Brooks and Luca, who have been getting a lot of minutes.”
Glad, a starter in qualifying play, arrived at the tournament recovering from a knee injury and entered the Saudi Arabia game at halftime.
New Zealand reached the second round thanks to a 3-1 win over Honduras and a scoreless tie with Vietnam while losing, 2-0, to France. At the 2015 World Cup that New Zealand hosted, the USA beat the Kiwis, 4-0.
“We know they're going to be a hard-working team, based on the last World Cup also,” Ramos said. “And they're going to make things difficult. But I think we're learning, we're getting better. I feel our team will be prepared. We know that it's a 'final.' You have to come out and win it. There's no other result that's good now.”
Lennon, who led the USA in scoring with four goals in qualifying as it won the Concacaf U-20 Championship, got his first U-20 World Cup goal against Saudi Arabia after helping set two goals against Ecuador.
“We're very proud,” Lennon said. “Obviously, our goal was to make it to the second round and we accomplished that. And it especially feels good finishing first in our group. I'm really proud of the guys and how hard we worked to get to this moment.
“It's always hard playing a man down. But I think we dug deep and fought for one another and grinded out the result.
“Our mentality was to stay in the game no matter what, even though we were a man down, keep fighting for every ball, and I think we did that. And coming out with a 1-1 result was good for us. And now we're through into the next round after finishing in first place in our group and that's what we came here to do. We're all happy.”
To beat New Zealand on Thursday would mark only the fifth time that the USA won a game in the knockout stage of a U-20 World Cup. Waiting in the quarterfinals would be the winner of Venezuela-Japan with two extra days of rest (thanks to a schedule set up to favor the host South Korea in case it won its group).
Schedule, Round of 16:
Venezuela-Japan (Game 37)
South Korea-Portugal (38)
Uruguay-Saudi Arabia (41)
England-Costa Rica (39)
USA-New Zealand (44)