When you record the most memorably youth national team victory in your nation's recent history, what do you do for an encore? If you're U.S. Under-20 national team coach Tab Ramos, you find a way to strike the balance between making sure your team soaks in the positive energy from the win and ensuring that it can refocus for the next challenge.
After eliminating Under-20 World Cup favorite France, the United States is heading into its third straight Under-20 World Cup quarterfinal, and the Americans face Ecuador with a chance to reach the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1989.
The United States has had three days to recover from, and bask in the glow of, Tuesday's stunning 3-2 victory against France, a match that saw the Americans battle back from a 2-1 second-half deficit to stun the European powerhouse. Ramos made sure to use that time to have his team recharge its batteries, while also celebrating an impressive accomplishment.
"When you have a second round game against France, and you get over such a huge hurdle, it's not necessarily something that we're used to," Ramos said. "I think the mental aspect over the last three or four days has been the most important with the team. To make sure that they get a little time away, that they get a little time to feel good about what's happened because that's important. It's a big accomplishment, but at the same time to now stay focused on what happens next."
What's next for the Americans is a match against Ecuador, an opponent that might seem like pushover compared to France if you only look at the fact Ecuador finished third in its World Cup group.
A closer look at the team's credentials reveals the fact the Ecuadorians won the South American qualifying tournament, and lost a tight 1-0 decision to World Cup semifinalist Italy in its group stage meeting, a match Ecuador dominated for stretches despite an early red card. Ecuador also defeated Mexico in group play, and tied a tough Japan, 1-1. It's also worth noting that Ecuador missed penalty kicks against Italy and Japan.
"Ecuador is a team that attacks very well, that keeps the ball very well, and defends very well," Ramos said. "A team like this, that has such a good trajectory in South America, it looks like a complete team. In tha sense, we're going up against an opponent that we don't see with any holes."
Leading the charge for Ecuador is striker Leonardo Campana, who finished as the top scorer in South American qualifying, and Real Sociedad goalkeeper Moises Ramirez. Campana is a 6-foot-2 forward who holds the ball up well, and is an excellent finisher, while Ramirez has proven to be an acrobatic shot stopper who commands his penalty area well. Ecuador also boasts dynamic flank players, including speedy Sporting Lisbon right winger Gonzalo Plata and left back Diego Palacios, who is coming off an impressive loan spell with Dutch side Willem II.
A key battle to watch will be in midfield, where Ecuador's dual defensive midfielders Sergio Quintero and Jose Cifuentes use their strength and size to try and smother opposing playmakers. Alex Mendez returns from suspension and will be key to unlocking that Ecuadorian duo, along with Paxton Pomykal, who was key in the win against France, but who also took a beating in that match. if Pomykal is banged up, Ramos could go with Brandon Servania, who had a strong second half against France, or Richie Ledezma, who had an excellent first half.
Whichever midfield Ramos goes with will be looking to dominate possession and provide service for in-form attackers Sebastian Soto and Tim Weah against an Ecuadorian side that has looked vulnerable at times defensively, and will look to take advantage on the counter with its speed on the flanks.
"We're going into the game to play our soccer," Ramos said. "Our soccer is to win the ball, is to force the play, is to try and win. We're two teams that are going out to win the game and I think it's going to be a good game."
The biggest question mark for Ramos will be deciding who to partner with Chris Richards in the U.S. central defense. Aboubacar Keita has started in all four matches in the tournament, but has been very shaky in the team's past two matches. He unseated regular starter and team captain Mark McKenzie, but Ramos could choose to start McKenzie, who partnered with Richards in the Concacaf Championships.
Keita has looked vulnerable at times, particularly in space against quicker attackers, which is what he is going to face while Richards will look to try and contain Campana. McKenzie is a better overall defender than Keita, and should get the nod, though McKenzie has also made some ill-timed challenges in his limited minutes in the Under-20 World Cup.
Another lineup decision Ramos will have to make is on the right wing, where Konrad De La Fuente has started four straight matches, but did not play well against France and could be struggling due to fatigue. Ulysses Llanez was outstanding as a substitute against France, and would bring fresh legs to the position, where he can put pressure on Palacios, who is a better attacker than defender at the left back position.
Chris Durkin should also return to the starting lineup after sitting out the win against France due to yellow card suspension.