U.S. Under-20s 1, Spain 4: A Look Back

USU20sVsSpain (ISIPhotos.com)

Photo by ISIPhotos.com


If you were hoping we could just forget the ugly result in the U.S. Under-20 National Team’s World Cup opening loss to Spain last Friday, think again. The U.S. team’s 4-1 loss was ugly in many ways, but there were some bright spots to build on.

The most forgettable aspect of the U.S. team’s performance was the work of the defense, which struggled badly against Spain’s deadly counterattack and the speed and skill of Barcelona starlet Gerard Deulofeu.

The absence of suspended centerback Shane O’Neill forced Tab Ramos to start UCLA defender Javan Torre at centerback, and Torre struggled mightily and looked every bit look a college underclassmen who started just five matches for UCLA last fall.

As for positives? Luis Gil was the lone clearcut bright spot for Americans, even before the beautiful consolation goal he scored. The Real Salt Lake midfielder never looked out of place and was responsible for the best U.S. chances.

So what else did we learn from Friday’s loss? Here are some more observations:

The Americans set out to try and impose themselves on Spain with a high-pressing approach that looked to take Spain out of their comfort zone. It worked for stretches as Spain never really could build through the middle. What the approach did though was leave space behind the pressing U.S. attackers for Spain to hit on the counter and the Spaniards did just that with brutal efficiency.

Was Ramos naive or unrealistic to try and approach Spain this way? That’s a big question coming off this loss, and some believe it was a foolish mission. This goes to the heart of the debate on whether results are more important than teaching and implementing a philosophy that can work its way through the U.S. National Team system. From that standpoint, you can’t really blame Ramos for having his team approach the match the way they did.

The biggest issue with trying to play that way is if your back-line isn’t strong, and your defensive midfielder isn’t capable of providing quality support to the defense, then a strong opponent can take advantage. Wil Trapp and the back four struggled badly, particularly in space when Spanish attackers were able to pressure the flanks and stretch the back-line, leaving the heart of the U.S. defense exposed.

Before the tournament, I said centerback was a problem area for the U.S., and leaving Walker Zimmerman off the World Cup roster was Tab Ramos’ biggest mistake. The Spain game drove those points home. Shane O’Neill’s opening-game suspension forced Ramos to turn to untested Javan Torre at centerback, when he had seen most of his time at left back. O’Neill being suspended wasn’t a surprise, so Ramos had to know he would need a centerback stand-in for O’Neill, and rather than include Zimmerman on the roster, he left him out and left his squad exposed.

Torre looked like a player who quite frankly isn’t nearly polished enough to play on that high a level at centerback. Meanwhile, Zimmerman was one of the top defenders in college soccer in 2012, and the first centerback drafted in the 2013 MLS Draft. I asked Ramos about Zimmerman on two occasions, before and after the roster was selected, and in both instances, he talked in terms of Zimmerman simply not being good enough to make the team. The fact that Torre was forced to start vs. Spain, and the fact that you won’t find a pro scout anywhere who would rate Torre anywhere near Zimmerman, suggests this blunder could have, and should have been avoided (and Zimmerman scoring a late equalizer for FC Dallas on Saturday only served to drive that point home even further).

Torre wasn’t the only clear-cut weak link in the back-line on Friday. Left back Juan Pablo Ocegueda looked terrible, and was beaten repeatedly. While you can chalk that up, at least in part, to the quality of the opposition, there were some plays where he just didn’t look up to the challenge. Ramos will have to consider a change at left back, but you also wonder whether the roster’s back-up left back (Torre) is ready to shake off his opening-game debacle to line up and start at left back. If not, Ramos might have to turn to the youngest player on the roster, FC Dallas defender Kellyn Acosta. It might seem a bit unwise to throw in a 17-year old into a World Cup match against France, but Acosta is highly regarded and if you can’t be confident in playing him in a game like the France game, then why was he even included on the roster?

DeAndre Yedlin showed some real quality throughout the match, but he also showed some of the rough edges to be expected from a player his age. There are some very appealing traits in his game, but anyone honestly thinking he should be anywhere the senior U.S. team isn’t being very realistic. He needs a few more years of seasoning before that happens.

As far as the attack goes, there were some good showings, including that of Alonso Hernandez, who showed some good signs before being subbed out with what appeared to be a foot injury. Danny Garcia also provided some good glimpses before leaving with what appeared to be a concussion.

If Hernandez and Garcia can’t go, Ramos will likely turn to Mario Rodriguez to replace Hernandez, but the Garcia replacement might be tougher to decide on. Daniel Cuevas was one of the most exciting U.S. players in Under-20 World Cup qualifying, but Ramos chose not to start him vs. Spain. Cuevas came off the bench, but showed little of the spark we saw in qualifying.

Ramos can either start him and give Cuevas a chance to impressive from the opening minute, or Ramos can start Mikey Lopez with the hope of giving the team a bit more strength in central midfield. It isn’t a coincidence that when Lopez entered the Spain match, and partnered with Trapp centrally, the U.S. began finding more success controlling the middle.

What will the lineup look like that faces France? if Garcia and Hernandez can’t play, or can’t start, here is how we could see the U.S. line up:







What did you think of the U.S. team’s performance vs. Spain? What changes would you make to the lineup? Do you consider implementing the 4-3-3 high-pressing system more important than changing up the system for a better chance of keeping things close and nicking a result?

Share your thoughts below.

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37 Responses to U.S. Under-20s 1, Spain 4: A Look Back

  1. Alexandria says:

    I watched that first half twice now, and if Hernandez makes that shot I firmly believe that changes this entire game. But the backline was terrible but I felt that on 3 of the goals it took the center mids not just Trapp but Joya and Gil too long to get back and help defend. I agree Torre was terrible but also he was too slow, plenty of times he was left in the dust, same with Ocegueda. My problem with how we approach soccer in this country its never been about development its picking the best team. And we still have coaches that just refuse to do it. There is no reason to go into a tournament like this without 1 natural CB no reason. I have no problem with Ramos’s strategy with better finishing it works and that game ends up in a tie. But to play Torre is just crazy and how that kid makes the team over other kids in this country Salcedo at RSL or any other college freshman makes no sense to me.

    • milkshake of despair says:

      Haven’t seen anyone else make this observation, but I thought Cropper could have easily come off his line to clear the long ball on the first goal. Wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the game, but could’ve helped keep it closer.

      And it made me wonder if that’s why Cropper came out so far on the 2nd half goal.

  2. mike says:

    Ives, I loved the tactics the US chose for this match. The defense made mistakes. No doubt. But I have never seen a US team on any level play with the offensive tactics used in this game. They got mauled in the end. But I was largely pleased with the effort. When have you ever seen the US play such a high pressure game so far up field? Loved it. A worthy risk. It’s attractive to watch and the possession in the first half made me do a double take. I would rather lose this way any day than to bunker down and simply counter. Kudos to Tab for having the nads to implement it.

    • Andrew says:

      i love tab ramos’ tactics at the junior level. it’s critical the young guys learn to play this way so that they can better implement it at a senior level. if this were the senior world cup, would i want JK to use the same tactics? of course not, but i loved seeing the young guys try and impose their will on Spain.

      • Brett says:

        I really enjoyed the fact that they looked like they actually enjoyed playing with the ball and didn’t treat it like a ticking time bomb.

    • Ives Galarcep says:

      I’m with you. My main criticism of Ramos is the fact he painted himself into a corner by selecting the wrong defenders for the roster. The approach makes plenty of season, and is better for the USMNT long term.

      • TomG says:

        Agreed. I do also worry that the team focus is all offense. The defensive technique is uniformly awful especially on closing out shooters and crossers. We want these kids to all be able to play both ways. If they lack that half of their game s it will slow down their development and prevent them from earning pt and callups with their clubs.

        • GW says:

          These kids are 17 to 20? Their individual skills are largely already in place.

          Ramos isn’t teaching them how to tackle or pass the ball. That happens at their clubs or college team.

          When they get back to their clubs they will be exposed to a different offensive and defensive philosophy and they can work on that there. I doubt Tab has ruined any defensive sensibilities they might have had.

          Right now he’s just exposing them to one way, his way, of setting up and playing as a team. So if the attacking midfielders approach it like Tab did that should not surprise anyone.

      • TomG says:

        Also, Ives, do you find it odd that this team plays a lot like Tabare? Is he picking guys like himself or is it the way he’s managing or just sheer coincidence?

      • beachbum says:

        what I like about its long term effect is in the psyche of the kids learning the game all over the states, not just these teams; how many of these players will actually represent at the senior level? whichever ones do will know this approach well, but more so it’s nice to explain to my son and his team that this is how the USA is trying to play, etc.

  3. sushant rao says:


    Has any journalist asked Tab why he didn’t select Zimmerman when he’s getting minutes for Dallas?

  4. Mike R says:

    Ramos made the same mistake with Zimmerman that
    That Rongen made with Subotic. Hopefully Zimmerman doesn’t go play for Serbia.
    We should get the best coaches for these youth teams and not look at it as a job opportunity for players and coaches from the Arena tree

  5. chris_thebassplayer says:

    Ramos was determined from day one to play a 4-3-3 with a high D line, so when he says Zimmerman wasn’t good enough, he probably means he didn’t think he was the right fit in his high line system where speed is essential. Zimmerman probably would be a good call in a more conservative defensive formation but Ramos was always going to stick his formation. If anything He could have adapted his approach due to injuries to key players (Packwood) or at least done a better job of having back ups to play his system…injuries and suspensions are normal and need to be accounted for.

    I absolutely agree that we need to develop players to play an open 4-3-3, but we need to have some flexibility. We didn’t have the personnel in defense to play a high line against Spain. Ramos could have done what JK is now doing, fitting the formation to better utilize his personnel. Ramos has very talented technical players, he could have gotten the same desired possession results, and had better defensive cover with a 4-2-3-1. At a minimum, he could have maintained his press but just dropped it a little deeper and minimized the space behind the D by 10-15 yards.

    • GW says:

      “Ramos could have done what JK is now doing, fitting the formation to better utilize his personnel.”

      Do you really think so?

      I get the impression Tab did not have the same degree of certainty that JK has in terms of who will be available and when. JK also has a much more experienced and savvy players so when he asks them to play a certain way they are probably better equipped to follow orders.

      I don’t follow them as closely but it seems like the Under 20’s are nowhere near as cohesive a group as the senior team. It seems like every time I hear about them they are, unexpectedly, missing more than a few key players.

      Given that team defense is all about cohesion and developing an understanding with your team mates, perhaps Tab simply decided that the best defense would be a good offense. They could have easily been 1-0 up on Spain pretty early and it’s possible that things might have gone a quite a bit differently had that happened.

      • chris_thebassplayer says:

        Yeah, I really think a 4-2-3-1 would have been much easier for the players to manage against Spain. Ramos likes the 4-3-3, but with that makeshift back line, it’s ridiculous to think we can outscore Spain. I’m not a fan of the “learning experience” of trying to figure out how to score 1-2 goals on a strong team and potentially giving up 5-6 goals. I’m with Tom on this one, both sides on the ball need to be managed in combination…you can’t completely forsake the defense, which is essentially what happened with Ramos’ tactics against Spain.

        • GW says:

          I think a lot of better organized defenses would have had problems with those Spaniards.

          I get your point.

          On the other hand, if you are playing a makeshift backline, even with a more defensive formation against opponents of the highest quality, my guess is you will lose anyway.

          Ives seems to think the defenders that Ramos picked were inferior to what he could have had. I don’t know about that but I can only address the players that were there.

          This is a developmental team and they have plenty of time to learn how to be negative and try and close down an opponent whose players are more skilled than your players. And given how truly skilled some of these Spaniards were I think the US players got more out of going at them than they would have playing a more defensive system poorly and then losing anyway.

          A couple of those Spanish goals were due to great skill but some were also due to basic breakdowns in coverage. You can’t do anything about the skill goals but the basic breakdowns can be fixed.

          So the take away lesson that Tab can tell these guys is: “Clean up your defensive errors. This is just a matter of hard work, discipline and concentration. Do that and you can play with these guys.”

          I think that is more valuable going forward for the development of these players

          I prefer the Clint Mathis let them worry about us attitude in a US team, the hell with the score..

          Let’s see how they look against their next opponent.

  6. Travis says:

    Really interested to see Yedlin’s development over the next couple of years. He clearly isnt ready for the full national team yet but the potential is certainly there. His tracking needs work defensively needs work, especially when the play is on the other side of the field but his pace allows him to cover up for some mistakes right now

    • GW says:

      In other words another fast athlete lacking in ball skills.

      It seems the US has had a lot of those.

  7. KKS says:

    It seems like whenever an ambitious non-elite team plays an elite team, there’s always a player or two on the former who just looks like he belongs on the same field as the Spaniards or Italians, who doesn’t look overawed or out of place. For Japan at the Confeds, that player was Shinji Kagawa. For the senior USMNT, it’s usually Michael Bradley. For the US U20s, that was pretty clearly Luis Gil. I might be blowing excessive amounts of sunshine here, but he was really, really good. Whenever he touched the ball, he did something recognizably attacking with it, without forcing balls or ceding possession stupidly. And I think it bodes well for the future that the American player who looked worthy of going toe to toe with Spain’s best young talent is a pure playmaker, and an effective one at that. If I’m the U23 coach at Werder Bremen or VfB Stuttgart or Valencia or PSV, I’m mighty impressed. So for all the issues with Ramos’ personnel (*cough* Torre *cough*) fitting his tactics, it’s not just that it’s encouraging for this U20 team that its most effective player is a pure playmaker who looks like he belongs on the same field as Real Madrid’s best youth player, but that the US youth system can produce a player like that, who looks comfortable in a high-pressure 4-3-3. I don’t think we’ve ever done that before.

    • Eurosnob says:

      I am sure there were plenty of scouts from European clubs at the game, since Spain was playing, which is a good thing for Gil, if he stood out. However, any interested club would have to deal with MLS to secure his transfer rights, which is much harder than dealing with a single club.

    • GW says:

      Well, there was this guy named Donovan.

      • KKS says:

        At that age, Donovan was basically an out-and-out winger. He’s changed his game quite a bit in the past ten years.

  8. Brett says:

    I thought Hoya had a lot of nice touches/passes/runs as well. He and Gil really looked a cut above everyone else. Cuevas was a ghost after he came on, as if he were hiding from the game.

  9. Brett says:

    I thought Hoya had a lot of nice touches/p@sses/runs as well. He and Gil really looked a cut above everyone else. Cuevas was a ghost after he came on, as if he were hiding from the game.

  10. Gary Page says:

    Maybe this is out of place, but what struck me was how extremely well Spain found the open man for quick outlet passes of 20 to 25 yards to start their counter attacks. Because they are so good at that, it totally negated the high line defense. I agree with the other poster that in hindsight we should have played a 4-2-3-1. Agree that the Zimmerman decision seems to make no sense. Even without knowing anything about the players, a player still in college versus somebody starting or playing regularly in MLS should be no contest as to whom to choose. At least this team passes the ball and maintains possession much better than past teams I have seen.

    • GW says:

      “a player still in college versus somebody starting or playing regularly in MLS should be no contest as to whom to choose.”

      What if the player in college has more upside than the one in MLS? This is about development and encouraging players after all.

  11. Gary Page says:

    I forgot and wrote the word p@sses correctly without thinking and now have to await moderation. Ives, you really should tweak your moderation software, This is ridiculous when you can’t write such a basic word when referring to soccer.

    • Travis says:

      Maybe he should give us the option to edit within the first like 10 minutes of posting, I dont often realize I’ve used a word I shouldn’t until I submit. Not sure how tough that’d be.

  12. Joe Webb says:

    I love that we tried to implement a style. We looked good for long stretches. Style, experience need to be more important than just results. Look at England. They are now complaining that the younger guys don’t know how to play anymore and just boot it downfield. They want the youth coaches to do what Ramos IS doing

  13. 2tone says:

    I would not be surprised to see both Yedlin and Gil get called up to the January camp.

  14. SD says:

    Why can’t US coached pick the ‘right’ team…the zimmerman situation seems similar to subotic…but remember the u17s, richie williams doesn’t play the one guy (flores) in the right position to allow him to impact the game….the u23s had no defenders either and we don’t qualify for the olympics…just seems like the coaches are making the same mistake at different levels…do they not know how to evaluate talent? do they not know how to modify their system to ensure the best players are on the field and able to impact the game?

    i’m glad about the approach to the game but i don’t see how zimmerman is not better than torre. i haven’t seen zimmerman play, but he had been playing against better competition this spring alone…..