U.S. sights set on deep U-20 World Cup run after toppling France
Beating the previously-unbeaten French has the Americans in the Under-20 World Cup quarterfinals again, and the side is eyeing a title challenge
Before he made the trip from the United States to Poland for the Under-20 World Cup, Tab Ramos was cautiously optimistic. He knew he was taking a good U.S. team to this year’s competition. In his words, they were the most talented of the four squads he had taken to the tournament.
What he didn’t have a good grasp of was the quality of the opponents his team would be facing, and what sort of road they would have to navigate to realize the dream of a deep tournament run. For that reason, Ramos believed any talk about challenging for a World Cup title was foolish before the tournament.
The group stage showed that Ramos was right to be cautious. Group D proved to be a challenging one, but the U.S. made it through to the knockout rounds as the second-place finisher. An even bigger test awaited in the round of 16 and the Americans found a way to pass it, eliminating a France side that was considered one of the tournament favorites.
The French showed the quality that helped them power through the group stage—including a win against newly-minted World Cup quarterfinalist Mali — and outplayed the United States for long stretches. That wasn’t a surprise given the quality on France’s roster. What was a surprise to those who didn’t know the U.S. team well, and even to some that did, is that the Americans could take a punch from a powerhouse and give one right back.
When France took a 2-1 lead in the second half it felt like a knockout was looming. Sebastian Soto’s early goal gave the Americans hope, but the way France punished the U.S. defense to score a pair of goals in response, dominating play for much of the first 60 minutes, suggested the Americans were doomed to the expected fate.
Everything changed when Ramos inserted Ulysses Llanez and Justin Rennicks. The speedy duo gave the Americans some much-needed energy, and Llanez’s determined approach fired up his teammates and put the French on their heels. Suddenly, France went from thinking it could coast to victory to realizing it was facing a dangerous opponent.
“It was honestly basics at that point,” Soto said after the match. “You think you’re playing a world class team like France. Yeah, you think you’re scared or intimidated. It’s like ‘No, it’s basics. it’s football.’ That’s kind of what we showed, but also with fight. It was awesome.”
This shouldn’t have been a surprise to the French, who had played the Americans in a trio of friendlies over the past year. The two sides were familiar with each other, though that didn’t keep France from looking flat in the final 25 minutes as the Americans battled back.
It was going to take more than just energy though, the United States needed some skill, and that’s what it delivered when it put together a well-worked team goal capped by some individual skill. Llanez found a wide-open Tim Weah 35 yards from goal, where the Paris Saint Germain product had time and space to measure up a perfect line-splitting pass to Soto, who settled it in tight space and finished calmly past France’s Fiorentina-based goalkeeper, Alban Lafont.
The equalizer should have re-awakened France, but the favorites didn’t respond, and instead it was the Americans who showed more life in the closing minutes. That was clear to see on the winning goal, which came when Sergino Dest struck a speculative blast from long distance. A regular starter in goal in Serie A, Lafont would have been expected to handle the shot comfortably, but he failed to grab hold of it, letting it spill for a rebound that Rennicks pounced on, slipping past France’s slow-reacting defenders to slot home an improbable winner.
It was a victory that was partly down to determination, but also the ability for some Americans to deliver special moments, even in a match where they were being outplayed. Soto took his chances well, Weah had a hand in a goal for the fourth straight match, Chris Richards dominated in the heart of the U.S. defense again, and Llanez came off the bench and provided sorely-needed energy for the second straight match.
If the win was surprising, it wasn’t just because of France’s quality, or the suspensions that kept starting midfielders Alex Mendez and Chris Durkin out for the United States. It was a surprise because the United States looked flat in beating Qatar in the group stage finale. It was an unconvincing performance against an opponent the Americans were expected to dominate, and in looking lackluster, the United States invited questions about just how good this team really was.
The Americans didn’t outplay France, and they were dominated for significant stretches, but what this U.S. team did was refuse to break against a superior opponent. They fought and scrapped, and made big plays when they needed them.
They delivered the kind of win U.S. fans used to see a lot more often than they have in recent years.
“We’re one of the teams that, if you underestimate us, we’ll punish you,” Rennicks said. “I think that’s what happened today.”
Ramos’ reaction at the final whistle was a telling one. While those around him celebrated wildly, the U.S. coach had an incredulous look on his face, taking a moment to look at his watch as if he was already starting the countdown to Saturday’s quarterfinal against Ecuador. Perhaps it was the realization that he’s been here before, having won in the round of 16 in the previous two tournaments. Both times, the Americans went home after close losses in the next round. In 2015 it was a penalty shootout loss to eventual champion Serbia, then an overtime defeat against eventual finalist Venezuela in 2017.
Ramos came to Poland unsure where his team stacked up against the world’s best, but now he knows it’s a team capable of something special. If the Americans can beat Ecuador in Saturday’s quarterfinal, it would mark the first time in 30 years that a U.S. team has reached the semifinals of an Under-20 World Cup.
After eliminating France, this U.S. team will head into Saturday confident it can beat anybody, and after watching the Americans take down France, a run at the Under-20 World Cup title doesn’t sound like such a crazy idea anymore.
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