An overzealous referee made things difficult for the U.S. Under-20 national team on Sunday, but the team's response in its U-20 World Cup group stage finale offered the latest evidence that these Americans might be able to make a deep tournament run.
Playing down a man for 45 minutes against a feisty Saudi Arabian side, the U.S. rode its stingy defense to a 1-1 draw that secured first place in its group, and the comfortable round of 16 draw that goes with it.
It was far from easy. Peruvian referee Diego Haro issued a pair of yellow cards against Cameron Carter-Vickers — two bad decisions in a truly shocking officiating display — to leave the Americans a man down — but up a goal courtesy of a Brooks Lennon finish — heading into halftime. A team might normally collapse if it lost its best defender, but central defense happens to be an area of considerable strength for the U.S., so Tab Ramos was able to insert Real Salt Lake regular Justen Glad alongside the ever-steady Erik Palmer-Brown to solidify the backline.
The U.S. still needed goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann to make some saves, and Saudi Arabia did break through with a 74th-minute equalizer, but the Americans showed real poise in closing out a match that could have easily wound up being a defeat.
Sunday's match offered the kind of experience these young Americans will need to be able to deal with as they mature and develop into senior team players. There are going to be matches where a referee has a negative impact on proceedings — particularly in CONCACAF — and being able to navigate through that kind of adversity is a valuable character trait. The Americans showed that on Sunday, and were rewarded with a first-place finish in what you could argue was the toughest group at the U-20 World Cup.
The Americans will now face New Zealand on Thursday in the round of 16, and will do so with three starters — Carter-Vickers, Jones and Aaron Herrera — suspended. Having already lost Gedion Zelalem with a torn ACL suffered in the opening draw against Ecuador, the U.S. will see its depth seriously tested in the knockout rounds.
Here are some more observation's from the U.S. Under-20 team's group stage finale:
ADAMS DOMINANT IN MIDFIELD
New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams was everywhere on Sunday, helping pick up the slack left by Carter-Vickers' ejection. Saudi Arabia had the quality to create chances, but Adams cut off passing lanes and also helped deliver attacking passes that put teammates into good positions.
It was Adams who started the U.S. goal sequence when he slipped in a pass to spring Josh Sargent in the penalty area. And it was Adams who tirelessly chased the ball to keep the Saudis from finding a real comfort zone even with a man advantage.
Adams hasn't generated the headlines of attacking players like Sargent and Lennon at this World Cup, but he has been one of the team's most important players, and will be even more important in the round of 16 now that Derrick Jones is suspended for the match against New Zealand.
PALMER-BROWN STEPS UP AFTER RED CARD
Losing Carter-Vickers to a dubious set of yellow cards was clearly frustrating for the U.S., but the departure of the Tottenham defender set the stage for Palmer-Brown to remind us just how good he is. The U.S. U-20 captain hasn't put a foot wrong at this World Cup, and he stepped his game up even more after the Americans went down to 10 men.
The Sporting Kansas City defender — who memorably generated transfer interest from Italian giant Juventus as a 16-year-old — has boosted his stock in South Korea, building on his Golden Ball-winning performance at the CONCACAF Under-20 championship. In that tournament, Palmer-Brown impressed playing in a defensive midfield role that isn't his natural position. Now back in his more familiar central defender role, Palmer-Brown has been unbeatable.
Ramos will need more of that against New Zealand on Thursday, in a match the U.S. will play without the physical presence of Jones in front of the defense, and without the imposing Carter-Vickers. Palmer-Brown will need to lead the defense, much as he did in the second half against Saudi Arabia, and if he can maintain that same level, the U.S. will have a good chance of reaching the quarterfinals, even without three starters.
U.S. DEPTH TO BE TESTED
How will Ramos cope without three starters against New Zealand? Replacing Carter-Vickers is straightforward, with Glad a natural option, but with Jones suspended as well, Ramos might consider shifting things around defensively.
Palmer-Brown was outstanding playing in a defensive midfield role in the CONCACAF championships, and Ramos could move up him to the midfield, with Glad and Tommy Redding stepping into central defense.
A better option would be to simply slide in Glad next to Palmer-Brown in central defense, with Adams taking over the defensive midfield role. Though he has been more a box-to-box presence in this tournament, Adams plays as a defensive midfielder for the Red Bulls and is well-equipped to handle the role. If Ramos makes these moves, then Auston Trusty would be an option at left back, with Danny Acosta sliding to right back.
A more drastic variation could be a 3-5-2 with Glad, Palmer-Brown and Redding in defense, with Acosta and Lennon as wingbacks. Sebastian Saucedo could move up to with Sargent, while Adams, Eryk Williamson and Luca De La Torre form the central midfield triangle. This one is a long shot, but Ramos may have to consider turning to some variation of this if the U.S. finds itself trailing New Zealand on Thursday.