It was tougher than it should have been, but the United States opened the Under-20 World Cup with a 2-1 win over lowly Myanmar on Saturday. With a goal in each half in Whangarei, New Zealand, the U.S. logged its first win in the competition since 2009.
Myanmar controlled the opening phase of the game and scored first, less than 10 minutes into the game, as Yan Naing Oo tapped in a corner kick. The U.S. equalized on its own corner in the 17th minute, with Maki Tall finishing Cameron Carter-Vickers’ flick to the back post.
Gedion Zelalem made his much-anticipated competitive debut for the U.S. in the second half, and the Americans scored again one minute after he trotted onto the field. Emerson Hyndman put away Rubio Rubín’s ball to cap a counterattack in the 55th to give the U.S. a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
With the win, the U.S. goes to the top of Group A. Host nation New Zealand couldn’t muster a goal despite a couple great opportunities late against Ukraine earlier in the day, and that match finished scoreless.
Here are three thoughts on the U.S.’s shaky start to the tournament:
1. Identity issues plague another U.S. team
Despite having trained together in preparation for the tournament since mid-May and in a couple camps beforehand in 2015, the U.S. largely opened the match like its players had barely met. Players panicked under the slightest pressure, allowing Myanmar to keep the ball in the American half and score the opening goal.
The U.S. reverted to wild clearances and hopeful launches toward forwards Tall and Rubín, which fell to Myanmar defenders who continued pressuring. Teams normally hit multiple blind long balls when they have little idea of how to attack otherwise, and the U.S. fit that bill early in the game.
Maybe it was only nerves, because the team eventually settled down after halftime. Calmer concentration took hold, and the Americans dominated the closing stages of the first half and nearly the entire second half.
However, it looked a lot like American teams past once the U.S. did begin exerting its influence. After the opening goal on a set piece, the second came on a counterattack, both staples of the U.S. before Jurgen Klinsmann took over the program and promised progressive-minded changes to the American approach.
The senior team showed similar qualities in its most recent friendly matches in Europe, particularly in an organized, defense-first match against Switzerland. Perhaps the way forward for the U.S. program doesn’t have to be drastically different from what brought it success in the past—which looks more like Chelsea and less like Barcelona.
2. Myanmar deserves credit for its courage
Rather than playing scared, Myanmar attacked from the opening whistle. It could have earned a penalty in the first minute of play, foreshadowing the high-energy style on which the team would rely all game.
One of the tournament’s true enigmas, if such a thing exists in international football in the age of modern technology, Myanmar hadn’t qualified for any major international tournament since the 1972 Olympics in Munich. It also finished second in the five-team 1968 Asian Cup, when it played as Burma.
The Burmese senior team also won the 1966 and 1970 Asian Games in what was the country’s most successful era in the sport. It might be trying to replicate the nation’s golden generation, but this U-20 team is no throwback; it plays modern football, explosive in the attack, and it matched the U.S.’s 11 shots on Saturday.
Under German manager Gerd Zeise, a former Hertha Berlin and Energie Cottbus scout, the Myanmar squad trained together every day like a club team in preparation for the tournament. It showed in the team’s defensive organization and discipline in all phases of play.
In the first half in particular, the U.S. struggled to breach a high Myanmar line, as the center backs tempted long passes behind and caught up to them with their speed. In the end, the U.S.’s superior individual skill won out, but Myanmar should be set up to punch above its weight again in subsequent matches.
3. Rising expectations put pressure on follow-up performances
Life won’t get any easier for the U.S. Better tests come next in New Zealand and Ukraine, the All-Whites as the tournament host and Ukraine as the most skilled team in the group.
Starting against Myanmar provided an important opportunity to start with a positive result and work out any nerves the young American players might have. They narrowly checked off the first item on the list and seemed to take care of the second as the game wore on.
Klinsmann has spoken frequently about his desire to streamline the U.S. program from top to bottom, repeating his mantra about wanting players to push themselves to the highest level possible. Before the tournament, U-20 coach Tab Ramos said his team should embrace those rising expectations for all American teams.
For long stretches against Myanmar, it looked like the U.S. succumbed to that pressure and played fearfully rather than like the world power it could be with its resources and population. The best become the best through figuring out how to navigate the monumental expectations on their shoulders, and the next two games offer a test of that sort for the Americans.
They haven’t been expected to dominate a group in a long time, but this squad received a favorable draw and is supposed to be one of the most promising in multiple cycles. However, it’s a long road between the U-20 and senior teams, and these players need to quickly welcome and assimilate the hype surrounding them.