A year after the senior team made waves in Brazil, the United States under-20 national team will play in its own World Cup in New Zealand. It took a 2-0 CONCACAF playoff win over El Salvador to earn qualification, which the U.S. completed on Saturday in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
Ben Spencer headed home a free-kick rebound off the crossbar late in the first half, and Zack Steffen stopped a penalty kick early in the second before substitute Paul Arriola scrambled home another goal. The win sends the U.S. to its ninth World Cup in its last 10 efforts.
Here are three thoughts on the U.S.' qualification for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand this summer:
1. Tab Ramos’ team got the job done and qualified, which is ultimately what matters.
Nobody ever complains about a win, regardless of the aesthetics of the match itself. Saturday's chaotic game could have turned out differently, but the U.S. kept its composure through shaky CONCACAF refereeing, a chippy opponent and adversity in the form of a conceded penalty kick.
Romain Gall led the U.S. with five goals in Jamaica, and the Americans outscored their opponents 14-2 for the tournament. Still, a 1-1 draw against Guatemala in the first match and the surprising 1-0 loss to Panama that followed didn’t provide much reason for optimism. Panama in particular made the U.S. uncomfortable with its expertly choreographed team pressure, which allowed it to overcome the talent gap and win the match.
2. Qualification shouldn’t mask the U.S.' severe player- and team-development problems that international competition regularly exposes.
The Americans underwhelmed for the majority of the tournament in terms of its style of play, clearly lacking an overarching team identity despite spending weeks together in camp before traveling to Jamaica for the tournament. Too often the U.S. reverted to playing aimless long balls, and the team struggled in every match besides an 8-0 win over Aruba, a nation with about one-sixth the population of Wyoming. Even up two goals and a man after a Salvadorian red card on Saturday, the U-20s continued their desperate, launched clearances.
Youth national teams are tasked with moving players onto the senior team, and even if a small number makes it that far, that’s often seen as satisfactory. But in terms of developing a cohesive national playing style from top to bottom throughout the system, the U.S. is still far off. Technical director and senior coach Jurgen Klinsmann preaches a possession style, but only a couple teams in the system (namely the U-14s and U-17s) come close to personifying it.
3. Steffen, Tommy Thompson and Emerson Hyndman looked a step above the rest of the U.S. players during the tournament.
Hyndman has already been called onto the senior team and made his debut against the Czech Republic, but the Fulham midfielder really shined against players his own age as a deep-lying playmaker. He partnered well with the second-year pro Thompson, whose technical creativity allows him to play either on the wing, as he did in Jamaica, or at forward, as he usually does for the San Jose Earthquakes.
Steffen anchored the U.S. defense just weeks after leaving the University of Maryland to join Bundesliga side Freiburg, coming up with an important penalty save on Saturday. His combination of size, technical ability and soccer IQ at age 19 makes him a good prospect to emerge as the next in a long line of top American goalkeepers. That lineage includes Kasey Keller, who had a breakout performance to help the U.S. finish fourth at the 1989 U-20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia.