The U.S. U-20 World Cup lineup debate: There are no wrong answers

Thirty years ago, the U.S. U-20s achieved what is still their best finish at what was then known as the FIFA World Youth Championship when they took fourth place in Saudi Arabia.

The USA's key match was its second of the group stage against East Germany. I happened to be at a USSF meeting in Seattle that day. I can't exactly remember what was their beef -- one year after he engineered the USA's successful bid to host World Cup 1994 -- but the meeting was called because youth members were up in arms with President Werner Fricker, predictive of the election that toppled him a year later with not a little help from FIFA.

I happened to be in the suite federation staff set up as an office when a call came in from Jeddah that the USA had beaten East Germany, 2-0. It was only the USA's third victory in the history of the U-20 World Cup and it basically put the USA through to the quarterfinals.

When the meeting resumed shortly thereafter, someone -- Sunil Gulati, as I recall -- took to the podium to announce the USA-East Germany result to the federation membership. There was some polite applause, but many in the audience had no idea what he was talking about.

There was no television, no Internet, no media coverage except from Soccer America, which sent Mike Woitalla to Saudi Arabia. "No one knew about it until it came out in Soccer America a month later," Kasey Keller, the tournament's Silver Ball winner as its second best player, told The Athletic.

Thirty years later, the Under-20 World Cup is one of the most-watched competitions by American soccer fans. Monday's USA-Nigeria game averaged 200,000 viewers on FS1, more than any other program on Memorial Day and all but one of the 12 MLS broadcasts in 2019 on the sports network.

Interest has grown as more young players have broken into MLS and leagues in Europe and become American soccer household names. But the interest is more fundamental than that -- fans will view any team if it's exciting to watch.

The debate on Twitter about Coach Tab Ramos' players began after the USA's 2-0 victory over Nigeria with the debate: Who's the U.S. midfield boss? Paxton Pomykal? Or Alex Mendez? Two players who have taken different career paths and have different followings.

My take: I can't think of a young American player who has been more influential or more consistently dangerous than Mendez was through the first three games at the U-20 World Cup. And that he was often in dangerous positions was because of Ramos' emphasis on an all-out attack and the attacking skills of players throughout the lineup from back to front.

As Ramos looks ahead to Tuesday's match against France, he will have to make at least two lineup changes because Chris Durkin and Mendez are suspended. Perhaps the greatest testament to the unprecedented depth of the U-20s is the fierce debate about whom he should start.

-- David Ochoa or Brady Scott in goal?
-- Sergino Dest or Julian Araujo at right back?
-- Who among Edwin Cerrillo, Brandon Servania and Richie Ledezma to join Pomykal in midfield in the place of the suspended Durkin and Mendez?
-- Uly Llanez or Konrad De la Fuente -- both eligible for the 2021 U-20 World Cup, it should be remembered -- ar right wing?

My take: There are no wrong answers here.

(For some great U-20 listening, I recommend The Scuffed Podcast with postgame analysis from experts, including SA contributor Brian Sciaretta.)

The unprecedented depth reflects the changing nature of MLS and American soccer more generally as players see and take a pathway to the pros at younger ages. Many of the U-20s moved away from home in their early teens to join residential pro academies.

Bob Gansler's 1989 U-20 World Cup team was entirely comprised of high school and college players. Every player Ramos took to Poland is a professional. And his U-20s -- four players -- played a combined five years in college before they turned pro.

The reality check, though, comes on Tuesday when the USA faces France in the round of 16.

The professional experience of Ramos' U-20s pales in comparison to that of France's Bleuets, who have played 509 first-team games (top two tiers of European soccer). Goalkeeper Alban Lafont, who starts for Italy's Fiorentina, has played more games (132) than all U.S. players combined (108).

It underscores how for all the progress American soccer made over the last 30 years it might take another 30 years before it gets to where we all want to it to be at, competing on an equal footing with the great countries of the world.

4 comments about "The U.S. U-20 World Cup lineup debate: There are no wrong answers".
  1. beautiful game, June 1, 2019 at 9:09 a.m.

    U.S. needs to have a positive attitude no matter who plays. Squad has the horses and talent to keep it simple and move the ball around and press when needed.

  2. Wooden Ships, June 1, 2019 at 9:22 a.m.

    Good read Paul. I would like to say that it’s surprising to hear that the USSF in that Seattle meeting were as indifferent to the East German defeat as you’ve indicated, but I’m not. Even prior, it was disappointing to see how few beat their chests over our game in the states. We were way to differential and many in a strange way seemed embarrassed to claim soccer as our favorite sport and tout the degree of difficulty involved in becoming great at it. As you and many others can recount, the spartan, meager assests provided would stun younger soccer fans if today.
    A couple other things come to mind; aside from the talented U-20’s on the team and Tabs style of play, many are looking to see our future national team prospects and how we are finally transitioning on how we play. As I watched the first two games of group I couldn’t help but wonder how this squad would do straight up against our current senior team? Additionally, it’s maybe dawning on some that college is not the route for future technical players needed to compete internationally. Even if we ultimately get to a two semester sport, it won’t be enough. The women might survive awhile longer, but for the men the ship has sailed several years ago. As you’ve indicated what we’re up against playing France, starting early and learning the sophistication required to ever realistically compete for senior World Cup, requires some to admit to some truths they still can’t reconcile. 

  3. Bob Ashpole, June 1, 2019 at 9:39 a.m.

    Good article. As Paul suggests, the U20 world cup is a player development opportunity. The emphasis is on how players perform. Match results are secondary.

    What is an indicator of the depth of our player pool is that there were U20 eligible players who were deemed too important to the senior team to allow them to participate in the U20 world cup. Whether this is USSF shortsightedness or a sign of a lack of depth in the player pool, or both, either way it indicates that the US men's program falls short of being first tier.

  4. R2 Dad, June 1, 2019 at 5:49 p.m.

    I'm thrilled our kids are developing earlier and have more opportunties than ever, but I would hesitate to forcast the progress out too far into future U teams. As PK mentions in this article and documented more completely in a previous one comparing our kid's total minutes to the French kids' experience, we are still behind. We've improved over the past 20 years, but relative to how the French youth teams have improved (both boys and girls), we have been improving at a slower rate than Les Bleu(et)s. Compare the MLS DA system (founded 2007) to Clairefontaine (founded 1988) to see we aren't turning out dozens of new pros every year, of higher quality, like a country 1/5 our size. 

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