The United States played its best match of the 2015 Under-20 World Cup on Wednesday, defeating Colombia, 1-0, in the round of 16. It was a mature victory for a squad still finding itself, and one in which the young Americans managed well the pendular nature of emotional matches.
Goalkeeper Zack Steffen's 83rd-minute penalty-kick save sealed the victory after Rubio Rubín scored the only goal of the game in the 58th minute on an effort reminiscent of many U.S. goals at the international level recently, running onto a knockdown off a long goal kick and smacking his finish home. However, the latter moment didn’t fully represent the U.S.’s overall performance, as it started to make good on some of Jurgen Klinsmann’s promises as technical director and show the team’s potential.
The Americans combined an organized pressing game in defense from their 4-1-4-1 starting shape with some creative combinations once they won the ball. Colombia fought as South American teams do, turning the crowded midfield into a scrappy battleground.
That’s also where a couple of the U.S.’s most promising prospects, Emerson Hyndman and Gedion Zelalem, played. In the most important part of the field in a World Cup knockout match, the team’s best players made the difference.
The hype machine continues to spin as more American fans get a glimpse of the 18-year-old Zelalem. He probably won’t win any FIFA awards this tournament, but the fuss is well deserved for a cerebral midfielder very much in the Arsenal mold.
Especially with his last-minute addition to the squad, the talent on this U.S. team is deeper than any other.
Multiple teams have seen two or three players go on to play regularly for the senior team, but Tab Ramos’s side has a handful with serious chances.
Ramos said before the tournament that his team embraces the added pressure that comes with its potential and the fact that every player on the squad is already a professional except the backup goalkeepers.
“We’re always hoping that we’re getting better, so we expect that. Our expectations for ourselves are always higher and higher, and so it’s normal that other people’s expectations are higher as well,” he said on a media conference call after the roster announcement. “I think there’s no reason to not have higher expectations than we’ve had in the past. We welcome that.”
After failing to deliver in a nervy qualifying tournament and struggling to impose itself against all in the group stage but host New Zealand in a 4-0 win, the Colombia match offered some vindication. The post-game celebrations could have been fill with as much relief as jubilation for a well-deserved victory.
Despite their relative inexperience as professionals, the players showed great understanding of game management and riding out waves of momentum each way. Despite carrying just 40 percent possession and being outshot threefold (24-8), they resiliently resisted conceding clear-cut opportunities against a potentially explosive Colombian side.
Los Cafeteros counterattacked ruthlessly and, when they broke the U.S.’s high pressure, strung passes together impressively in the final third. However, the Americans stayed organized and defended well both as a unit and individually, particularly Groningen fullback Desevio Payne.
Several times, the U.S. managed impressive passing moves of their own in the attack, when Hyndman and Zelalem pushed up to support Rubín and the speedier Paul Arriola and Jordan Allen ran down the flanks. (Allen replaced Bradford Jamieson IV in the 11th minute after he went down with a serious head or neck injury that sent him straight to the hospital.)
The hallmarks of youth still poked through at various moments.
The pieces connecting each block of players to one another haven’t been fully developed yet, and the shape was sporadically disconnected and too rigid.
Marco Delgado looked overrun at times between the U.S.’s banks of four when Colombia established a rhythm in possession, and Rubín was stranded up top when the midfielders were slow to support. In the beginning section of the second half, Colombia threatened more often and looked likeliest to score.
But that was when Rubín turned in his moment of magic, snapping the opposition’s momentum with the opportunism of a lone striker on the prowl. Rather than allowing himself to be played out of the match, the 19-year-old Oregonian found a way to contribute in his most adverse stretch.
It would have been simple to lock up the back end at that point, but the U.S. remained dangerous and didn’t allow Colombia to pour on the pressure until about 10 minutes before full-time.
Even when the work up to that point nearly vanished with Kellyn Acosta conceding a late penalty and picking up his second yellow card on a foolish foul–he'll be ineligible for the quarterfinals–the U.S. shrewdly found a way to recover. Steffen, who has had his shaky moments in New Zealand, went down to his right to parry Jarlan Barrera's penalty attempt away.
That secured a matchup against Serbia on Sunday in the quarterfinals, a place the U.S. hasn’t been since the 2007 U-20 World Cup–when a Michael Bradley goal helped the USA to a 2-1 win over Uruguay. It’s not the senior level, but it’s a positive step for a program that hasn’t looked this competent in a major youth tournament in a long time.