What a difference a week makes.
Tab Ramos and the U.S. Under-20 national team couldn't have begun the CONCACAF Under-20 championships in worse fashion, suffering a loss to Panama despite a man advantage, losing key midfielder Tyler Adams to an ankle injury in the process. Ramos was roundly criticized for his team's flat performance, and there were suddenly questions about whether this U.S. team would even make the Under-20 World Cup.
One week later, Ramos is looking like a master tactician after leading that same U.S. U-20 team to a thoroughly impressive win against previously undefeated Mexico. The victory was the first by the U.S. against Mexico in the competition since 1986, when the likes of Kasey Keller and Marcelo Balboa were on the U.S. team.
The Americans succeeded in stifling Mexico with consistent high pressure and the excellent organized work of the defense. The central midfield, where the trio of Erik Palmer-Brown, Adams and Eryk Williamson stifled El Tri's ability to create through the middle, made a huge impact. That work helped limit Mexico to zero shots on goal.
Adams' return to action came as a bit of surprise after being the victim of a vicious tackle against Panama that put the rest of his tournament in serious doubt. The New York Red Bulls midfielder was key to the U.S. plan to neutralize Mexico, because his unmatched work rate was crucial to the team's ability to press and pester Mexico's playmakers.
Adams did his part, as did Williamson and Palmer-Brown, who scored the winning goal when he headed home a Brooks Lennon corner kick that a Mexico defender tried in vain to keep out.
The U.S. didn't bunker in and defend, but chose instead to press high up the field, which Mexico simply didn't have an answer for. It was a full team effort, from striker Jeremy Ebobisse to wingers Luca de la Torre and Lennon. The Americans showed a confidence and desire that was absent in the tournament-opening loss to Panama, an impressive tournament considering it was done with 10 starters who also started in the loss to Panama.
The match did the USA-Mexico rivalry proud, with plenty of chippiness and trash-talking mixed into the intense battle. The Americans never did back down, but more importantly, never fell for the cheap shots or baiting of a Mexican team that clearly grew more frustrated as the afternoon wore on.
The Mexicans were left looking far less imposing than they did in the first round of the tournament, which they plowed through with three shutout victories. They hadn't faced a defense as sturdy as the Americans, with seasoned pros Justen Glad and Tommy Redding anchoring the central defense. With the U.S. midfield doing such a good job of cutting down passing lanes and staying tight to Mexico's top attackers, El Tri simply couldn't find a rhythm, or the patience to break down the U.S.
The execution of Ramos' game plan was excellent in that it played to this U.S. team's strengths, while hiding the clear weaknesses the team has in attack. Ebobisse and De La Torre have had their ups and downs this tournament, and the reality is many of the top attacking options in the Under-20 player pool aren't available for this tournament. With that in mind, Ramos is capitalizing on what strengths this team does have, mainly in central defense and in midfield, where the U.S. has the speed, tenacity and bite to make things difficult for anybody.
Monday's win just might be enough to secure a place in the Under-20 World Cup for the Americans, depending on what Mexico does against El Salvador on Wednesday, but if El Tri rebounds as expected, the U.S. will still go into Friday's group finale against El Salvador needing a win or draw. Even though El Salvador doesn't pose the same problems Mexico does, Ramos and his team would be well served to approach that game in much the same way they approached Monday. Emphasizing defensive pressure and organization, while looking to take advantage of opportunities on corner kicks and set pieces.
That might not sound like an overly ambitious approach against a team in El Salvador that the U.S. should beat comfortably, but the ultimate goal in this tournament is to qualify for the World Cup, where the U.S. should be able to field much closer to a full-strength team, particularly in attack.
If a World Cup berth is still on the line come Friday, Ramos would be wise to stick with what worked against Mexico. Not only because the recent history of U.S. youth national team failures offer enough evidence of what overconfidence can do, but also because Ramos need only look at this past week for evidence of just how quickly and dramatically fortunes can change for a team, and a coach.