It has become a bit of a tradition for U.S. Under-20 World Cup teams to head into the biennial showcase with some hype around the top young prospects in American soccer. The 2019 World Cup is no different, but what has changed is the level of expectations surrounding this year's edition of the U.S. Under-20 national team.
Widely-regarded as the most talented collection of players the United States has ever put together at this age group, the U.S. Under-20s kick off their World Cup on Friday against Ukraine standing atop a mountain of expectations. U.S. coach Tab Ramos isn't afraid to talk up his team, but he heads into his fourth Under-20 World Cup as U.S. head coach knowing full well that it's never easy to predict what to expect at a youth World Cup, and having more talent doesn't mean the current U.S. Under-20 team will reach a third straight Under-20 World Cup quarterfinals, or even further.
"I think we have the best team we’ve had. We have the most talent we’ve had, but I don’t know every single team in the World Cup right now," Ramos said. "I don’t know if Ukraine doesn’t have the best team they’ve ever had in their history too. It’s really hard to tell. To me, it doesn’t make a difference. I just want our team to play well. We’re going to go win one game at a time and see how far we go."
The Americans will be led by midfield playmaker Alex Mendez, winger Timothy Weah and striker Sebastian Soto in attack, as well as a strong defense boasting Ajax right back Sergino Dest and Bayern Munich defender Chris Richards. The U.S. team features many of the same players who ran through Concacaf with relative ease, and Ramos fully intends to have his team play the same attacking style at the World Cup that they showed off last November in their regional tournament.
"The idea for us is always the same. We want to have the ball," Ramos said. "We’re going to the World Cup and trying to figure out how we can break down Ukraine. How we can break down Nigeria. How we can beat Qatar.
"Part of our way of breaking down Ukraine is not going to be by sitting all the way back and hopefully countering. It’s not something I’m comfortable with, it’s not something I like and it’s not something that fits our players," Ramos said. "Our players want to attack. Our players want to be aggressive. If it happens that we lose that way, we lose that way, but we’re losing that way going after it."
The U.S. Under-20s enter the World Cup having won the Concacaf Championship in dominating fashion, and also featuring a collection of players that boasts the type of experience no previous U.S. Under-20 team has had. The roster consists entirely of professional players for the first time, and many of the team's key contributors have already begun gaining first-team professional experience.
Ramos has his most experienced team ever, and you could also argue it is his most confident team. The current U.S. Under-20 squad has a swagger that Ramos has seen manifest itself through the cycle.
"I hate losing more than I like winning so I worry about everything all the time. And this group sometimes just goes ‘we got this coach’. It’s that kind of group," Ramos said. "I really like that. When I see us walk on the field and I see guys like Alex Mendez and Mark McKenzie and Paxton (Pomykal) and those kind of guys who are just so confident when they walk on the field. It gives you a good feeling as a coach that everything’s going to be okay. This group’s a little bit different like that."
“We’re good. We’re really good. We know that we’re good, but we don’t let that take away from the work ethic because we know if we work hard we can be so much better," Soto told Goal. "The talent we have in this team at every position is special.”
The Under-20 World Cup will show just how special the U.S. group is, and a challenging group including Ukraine and Nigeria will present the Americans with an opportunity to show that this U.S. team really is as talented as advertised. Ramos clearly believes his team is special, but he has been to enough Under-20 World Cups to know that placing expectations on his team is a futile exercise.
"Most of the public has not seen our team play, and don’t really know our players well," Ramos said. "They just sort of know what they hear, and they definitely don’t know the other teams. So it’s really hard to say ‘this is the year we’re going to win (the Under-20 World Cup)'.
"Our goal doesn’t change. I want to go there and win every game, and then we’ll see where we fall."