Previous U.S. teams have beaten France (2019), Colombia (2015), Brazil (2007), Argentina (2005) and England (1999) at Under-20 World Cups, and the USA is the only nation to have reached the quarterfinals at the last three tournaments.
But past performances at youth tournaments provide limited insight into a country’s current generation of players. This year’s tournament takes place after the 2021 U-20 World Cup was canceled because of COVID.
After Tab Ramos coached the USA at the previous four U-20 World Cups, Mikey Varas is at the helm in Argentina after guiding the USA to the 2022 Concacaf U-20 Championship, which also served as 2024 Olympic qualifying.
"With this age group you get a lot of turnover in different camps, also in terms of releases," Varas said. "Who gets released from their club for regional championships can be different from who gets released for the World Cup. That changes the dynamics also. And then, is there a new coach? Ecuador has a new coach. Those are all unknowns.
"We've done our homework on all three opponents. All three opponents are going to provide different challenges. What we've focused on is preparing our players for a multitude of different things that can happen in a game.
"And that didn't happen over the course of the last two weeks. It's been happening over the last year and a half. Trying to play different opponents. Challenging ourselves to press in different ways. To build up in different shapes. To play different systems. Because our flexibility and our ability to adapt to what the game needs is going to be one of our biggest strengths."
Reaching the knockout stage requires a top two finish in Group B -- in which the USA faces Ecuador on Saturday, Fiji on Tuesday and Slovakia on Friday -- or a third-place finish if among the best four of the six groups.
The USA’s first foe is likely to be is most formidable in Group B. The Mini-Tri finished third at the 2019 U-20 World Cup, where it posted wins over Mexico, Uruguay, the USA and Italy in the third-place game after falling to South Korea in the semis.
PREVIOUS MEETINGS: Ecuador eliminated the USA in the 2019 quarterfinals, 2-1. The USA tied Ecuador, 3-3, in 2017 after going down, 2-0, on two goals by Josh Sargent and by Luca de la Torre.
QUALIFYING. Ecuador finished fourth at Conmebol 2023 Sudamericano Sub-20 while winning only two of nine games — 1-0 over Bolivia and 2-1 over Paraguay.
COACH: Jimmy Bran was axed after qualifying and replaced by Miguel Bravo, who had been coaching the U-20s at Independiente del Valle, which has become renowned for producing full national team talent.
KEY PLAYERS: Center forward Justin Cuero (Independiente Juniors, on loan from Independiente del Valle) captained and scored four goals in qualifying play — including both in the win over Paraguay that clinched passage — and 12 goals in his 18 U-20 appearance. Attacking midfielder Nilson Angulo (Anderlecht), who was not part of qualifying, debuted for the full national team with a start in a 3-2 November 2021 friendly win over Mexico and saw action off the bench in 2022 friendly ties with Saudi Arabia and Japan. Angulo is one of five foreign-based players who weren’t part of qualifying.
Fiji, the least fancied of team among the field of 24, is likely seen by its foes as the team to beat up on for a strong goal differential to boost chances of qualifying as a third-place team. In its first and only previous U-20 World Cup appearance, in 2015, losses to Germany (8-1) and Uzbekistan (3-0) sandwiched a 3-0 win over Honduras.
QUALIFYING. The Junior Bula Boys went undefeated against Oceania foes until losing, 3-0, to New Zealand in the final of OFC U-19 Championship.
COACH: Argentine Rodolfo Zapata replaced Fijian Rinil Dal after qualifying. The well-traveled Zapata coached clubs in four African nations after serving as a New Jersey ODP coach in 2012-2015 and coaching at New York City's United Nations International School.
KEY PLAYERS: While midfielders Clarence Hussain (Labasa) and Nabil Begg (Ba) led the team in qualifying, Zapata has brought in Zealand-based goalkeeper Aydin Mustahib (Auckland United) and 17-year-old England-born midfielder Josh Laqeretabua (Charlton Athletic).
Like Fiji, Slovakia has qualified once previously, in 2003, reaching the round of 16, where it lost, 2-1, to eventual champion Brazil. It reached the knockout stage thanks to wins over the UAE and Panama, while falling to Burkina Faso.
Since qualifying, Slovakia has lost two friendlies with Uzbekistan, fell to Japan, beat Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, and tied and beat Malta.
QUALIFYING. Slovakia beat Austria, 1-0, in the playoffs of the 2022 UEFA U-19 Championship it hosted. Its other qualifying results included losses to France (5-0) and Italy (1-0), but a 1-0 win over Romania earned it the duel with Austria.
COACH: Albert Rusnak took the helm after coaching second division FC Lokomotiva Kosice. His son, of the same name, joined the Seattle Sounders in 2022 after playing for Real Salt Lake in 2017-2021.
KEY PLAYERS: Timotej Jambor (MSK Zilina), the 19-year-old captain and center forward, scored three goals and has one assist in 18 Fortuna Liga games this season after scoring four and assisting once in five second division games. He has scored 10 goals in 20 Slovakia U-19/20 games in the last two years. Central defender Sebastian Kosa (Spartak Trnava) has made 27 appeareances in the 2022-23 Fortuna Liga play.