The U.S. Under-20 national team's opening World Cup match could not have started much worse or ended much better. In between a woeful beginning and a dramatic ending we saw an American team with plenty of things to work on, but more importantly, some strong positives to build on.
The Americans overcame a two-goal deficit to salvage a 3-3 draw, with Fulham midfielder Luca De La Torre's last-minute equalizer capping a turnaround that didn't look possible when the U.S. spent the first 30 minutes of the match being run ragged by a lightning-fast Ecuador attack.
As much as U.S. coach Tab Ramos will not be happy about some of the mistakes that led to Ecuador taking the lead twice, he will come away encouraged by how his team responded and how some players stepped up when needed – players such as U.S. Under-17 standout Josh Sargent, who showed the jump in age isn't too much for him, and Derrick Jones, who came off the bench to help set the tone for the U.S. turnaround.
Though it was a draw, Monday's result felt like a win for the U.S. because of the comeback, and because of the fact it came against an Ecuador team that should be the toughest opponent the Americans will face in the group stage. If the U.S. can play the way it did in the final 60 minutes on Monday, a place in the knockout rounds will be all but assured.
Here is a look at the key takeaways from the U.S. Under-20 draw against Ecuador:
JONES EMERGES AS PERFECT FIT IN MIDFIELD
Coming into the Under-20 World Cup, Ramos made it clear that his team needed Gedion Zelalem to be a creator in midfield, and the belief was that Zelalem would serve as the team's attacking midfielder. He instead came out in a more deep-lying role, trying to create from just in front of the defense.
Zelalem looked confident on the ball, but the U.S. struggled in the setup, in part because of the lack of defensive presence it created. It became clear just what a problem it was after Zelalem left the match with a leg injury and Derrick Jones replaced him. The Philadelphia Union midfielder provided the bite and ground coverage the Americans needed to help support the defense, while also freeing up the rest of the midfield to create.
The change worked wonders for the U.S. midfield, as it helped Tyler Adams, Eryk Williamson and De La Torre all get more involved in the attack, while Jones handled the dirty work of shutting down Ecuadorian threats through the middle.
It remains unclear how serious Zelalem's injury is — replays showed it to be a non-contact injury — but if it isn't serious, Ramos will have to think about how to construct his midfield going forward. Zelalem's quality on the ball is tough to ignore, but he doesn't have the same work rate as Adams or Williamson. Jones would be tough to leave on the bench for Thursday's crucial match against group leader Senegal — which defeated Saudi Arabia 2-0 on Monday — so Ramos will need to sit one of his opening-game starters.
If Zelalem's injury turns out to be serious, then Ramos will more than likely keep together the same midfield that helped spark Monday's comeback. That will mean handing Jones a well-deserved start.
SARGENT SHOWS HE'S READY FOR THE AGE JUMP
When Josh Sargent was chosen for the U.S. Under-20 World Cup team shortly after having dominated the CONCACAF Under-17 qualifying tournament, he was expected to be more bench option than starter. The 17-year-old St. Louis native played his way into the starting lineup instead, and showed why, with his two-goal effort against Ecuador.
Sargent makes excellent runs and is a clean finisher, and his quickness and feel for finding the weak spots in opposing defenses is that of a seasoned veteran, and not a player who has yet to sign a professional deal. That explains how he beat out a pair of older pros in Jeremy Ebobisse and Emmanuel Sabbi for the starting striker role. After his showing on Monday, Sargent will be tougher to pry out of the lineup.
DE LA TORRE STAKES CLAIM TO PLAYMAKER ROLE
It seems like ages ago when De La Torre turned in a forgettable showing in the opening match of the CONCACAF Under-20 tournament, a performance that raised some questions about his effectiveness. He eventually found his rhythm and had some of the best matches of the tournament, but that didn't keep him from becoming a bit of an afterthought as Zelalem was expected to be the U.S. team's lead creator.
On Monday, it was De La Torre who served as the spark in midfield that awakened a faltering U.S. attack. He looked like a much sharper, and more confident player than we saw in CONCACAF qualifying, and that confidence helped produce the assist on the opening U.S. goal, as well as the run to expertly meet a last-minute chance and bury it.
DEFENSIVE FRAILTIES A CAUSE FOR CONCERN
As happy as the Americans were with Monday's draw, they will need to tighten things up defensively. Ecuador was always going to offer the biggest challenge in attack, with their blazing speed on the flanks, but the ease with which the South Americans ripped the U.S. defense apart was unsettling.
Ecuador set out to go after U.S. right back Aaron Herrera and the plan was a rousing success. The University of New Mexico fullback was thrust into the starting role once regular starter and Fulham defender Marlon Fossey was ruled out of the World Cup due to an injury, and his positioning left a lot to be desired, leaving the rest of the U.S. defense exposed on multiple occasions.
In fact, both of Ecuador's first two goals came via sequences where Ecuador exploited space in behind Herrera, with Tommy Redding left scrambling in vain to provide cover on both occasions. Redding could have done better on both occasions, but Herrera's position left him exposed against Ecuador's speed.
Tottenham defender Cameron Carter-Vickers didn't play as he recovers from a knee injury, and the Americans definitely could have used him alongside Erik Palmer-Brown, who was solid in central defense.
Replacing Herrera is a bit tougher to manage. The team is light on fullback options, and Ramos will likely be forced to deputize one of his central defenders into a fullback role before the tournament is over.
UP AND DOWN DAY FOR KLINSMANN
Jonathan Klinsmann looked well on his way to building on his Golden Glove-winning performance in the CONCACAF Under-20 championships with a handful of big saves against Ecuador, but he had only himself to blame when he nearly handed Ecuador a victory by getting caught in possession and gifting the South Americans a goal.
The blunder marred what had been an otherwise standout showing for the son of former U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, but it shouldn't cost him his starting role. Klinsmann has blossomed in recent months, beating out J.T. Marcinkowski for the starting role before the CONCACAF tournament. He was spared the pain of costing his team a loss when De La Torre scored the equalizer, which is why Klinsmann could be seen racing down the field after the final whistle to give De La Torre a big appreciative hug.