The Unites States find themselves in a must-win game against Nigeria today after losing 2-1 to Ukraine in their opening game of the Under-20 World Cup. The loss came despite a solid performance from the US, in which they were probably the better side, especially in the first half.
While possession stats can be misleading against a side as resolutely committed to counter-attacking as Olecksandr Petrakov’s Ukrainian team, the US were assertive and purposeful in their possession, creating real opportunities. Unlike Ukraine’s opener off a long ball–brilliantly handled, it must be said, by Serhiy Buletsa (Dynamo Kiev)–the US equalizer was a beautifully crafted team goal that demonstrated their dominance. Right back Sergino Dest (Jong Ajax) and right wing Konrad de la Fuente (Barcelona Juvenil A) combined beautifully on the flank to release Dest inside, where he further combined with Brandon Servania (FC Dallas) and Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas) before feeding Timothy Weah (Paris Saint-Germain) on the left. His first-time cross in found a breaking Servania for a tap-in.
The US continued to create threatening chances from thoughtful play for the remainder of the half, and were good in the second as well. But Ukraine, who beat the much-fancied French side in qualifiers for the tournament, were extremely organized and effective. Sitting deep in a 5-4-1, they were not rattled by the clever play of the US and could strike with speed and intent. The changes at the start of the second half were telling. Tab Ramos swapped Weah and Pomykal, moving the latter to a central striking role and the former out to left wing, suggesting a recognition that something new was needed to break down Ukraine’s imposing defense. Petrakov kept the same formation, but his side pressed more aggressively and succeeded in getting more of the ball in the US end. Their set piece goal rightly reflected a shift in the balance of play at the start of the second half, and while the US responded well, they weren’t able to change the scoreline.Embed from Getty Images
Going into today’s game, the United States will hope that Nigeria look more like the second half side who appeared vulnerable to a more aggressive Qatari attack (at least for 15′ or so) than like the fluid and dangerous first half team, attacking down the left through fullback Ikouwem Udo Utin (Maccabi Haifa). The midfield battle should be interesting, as some of the best players in the opening games for each team played there. For the US, Alexis Mendez (Frieburg U-19) was often joined by Pomykal coming inside from a nominal position on the wing (or later dropping back from up top), while Tom Dele-Bashiru (Manchester City U-23) and Kinglsey Michael (AC Perugia) both had strong games for Nigeria. Bobby Warshaw, writing for mlssoccer.com, thinks that playing Pomykal centrally is the key to a US victory. De la Fuente also had a good game for the US and bears watching today. Anything but a win for the United States will make it difficult for the United States to advance to the knock-out rounds.