The USA beat Slovakia, 2-0, in its final Group B game at the U-20 World Cup in Argentina after opening wins over Ecuador (1-0) and Fiji (3-0).
The first-round performance by Coach Mikey Varas' team marks the first time that USA in its 17 U-20 World Cup appearances, dating back to 1981, won all three group games.
It marked the second time the USA shut out all three of its group opponents. (In 2005, the Sigi Schmid-coached U.S. team's 1-0 wins over Argentina and Egypt sandwiched a scoreless tie with Germany. It exited in the round of 16 with a 3-1 loss to Italy.)
Varas' team, which played all three of its games in San Juan, now moves 100 miles south to Mendoza, where on Tuesday it will face a third-place finisher from Group A, C or D.
On Friday against Slovakia, Cade Cowell (photo above) opened the scoring in the 38th minute after intercepting a Slovakian pass at the halfway line and beating four defenders.
In that sense, the USA's Friday performance resembled its play against Fiji, which finally fell on goals in the 66th minute (Luna), 88th (Cowell) and the ninth minute of stoppage time (Caleb Wiley) after frustratingly poor U.S shooting in the first hour of play. Both coach and players said after the Fiji game they needed to improve their finishing and convert early chances.
Against Slovakia, which the USA outshot 20-9, the Americans did get on scoreboard earlier and forced more difficult saves, but still won't be satisfied with its efficiency in front of the goal. After shooting over the goal twice, Luna did hit post in the 67th minute from 18 yards out. The USA's second goal didn't come until sixth minute of stoppage time.
Niko Tsakiris, a 67th-minute sub for Owen Wolff, struck with a close-range shot after fending off David Ovsonka and faking out Simon Micuda. Tsakiris was set up by Quinn Sullivan's pass.
Slovakia, which came into the game after a 4-0 win over Fiji and 2-1 loss to Ecuador, came closest to scoring shortly before halftime when Leo Sauer's 22-yard shot toward top left corner forced an impressive diving save from Gaga Slonina.
The USA entered the game assured of passage into the knockout stage but needing a tie or victory to win the group. With Ecuador beating Fiji 9-0 in game that took place simultaneously, a U.S loss would have dropped it into third place, which would have meant a meeting a group winner in the round of 16.
For Tuesday's game, Varas will have attacking midfielder Rokas Pukstas and winger Kevin Paredes.
Pukstas's arrival was delayed because of the Croatian Cup final, in which he helped Hajduk Split to a 2-0 win over Sibenik on Wednesday. VfL Wolfsburg, which is aiming for Europa Conference League qualification, has been holding on to Paredes for its final Bundesliga game on Saturday against Hertha Berlin.
May 26 in San Juan, Argentina
USA 2 Slovakia 0. Goals: Cowell 38, Tsakiris 90+6.
USA — Slonina; Che, Craig, Wynder, Wiley (Gomez, 77); Halliday, Edelman (McGlynn, 67), Vargas; Wolff (Tsakiris, 67), Luna (Yapi, 73), Cowell (Sullivan, 73).
Slovakia — Hrdina; Kopasek (Micuda, 75), Ovsonka, Kosa, Sikula; Snajder, Szolgai (Murgas, 68); Gazi (Csoka, 46), M.Sauer (Gajdos, 46), L.Sauer; Geiger (Jambor, 46).
Yellow cards: none. Red cards: none.
Referee: Ramon Abatti (Brazil), ARs: Rafael Alves (Brazil), Guilherme Camilo (Brazil). Fourth official: Ahmad Al Ali (Kuwait). VAR: Rodolpho Toski Marques (Brazil).