The Americans had more of the ball and more attacking chances, but Ukraine's defensive organization and opportunistic attacking ultimately won out, dealing the USA U-20s a set back to open Group D play in Poland.
The USA's FIFA 2019 U-20 World Cup opener was an exercise in role reversal.
Flash back about five to 10 years and think about the quintessential U.S. men's World Cup performance. An athletic, physical and organized team, looking to strike directly or on the counter, absorbing the more technical- and possession-focused opposition's best shots and finding a way to win. That was precisely the formula used Friday. By Ukraine.
The European nation beat the expectation-laden USA 2-1 in their Group D opener in Poland, dealing a setback to Tab Ramos's group of rising talents. The pressure rises for the USA in Monday's second match as a result of the loss. A U.S. defeat to Nigeria coupled with a Ukraine win over Qatar, and suddenly the only way through to the knockout stage would be via the third-place-finisher route in the 24-team competition.
It's not to say it was a completely horrid showing by the U.S., who, especially at this level under Ramos, have attempted to play a more technical, possession-based style and ditch the directness of yesteryear. The Americans, who finished as quarterfinalists in each of the last two U-20 World Cups, enjoyed 60% of the ball, outshot Ukraine and played with a clear set of directives. There simply wasn't enough in the final third of the field, with Ukraine (and Real Madrid) goalkeeper Andriy Lunin denying the dangerous Alex Mendez on three occasions when the U.S. did threaten to score. Sometimes, and especially at the youth level, the process doesn't always lend its way to desired results. Such was the case against an impressively focused Ukrainian side that shut the match down once it took the lead for good six minutes into the second half.
Ukraine's formula of looking to strike more directly and on the counter worked to perfection in the 26th minute. Ajax product Sergino Dest was beaten to a long ball over the top by Serhiy Buletsa, who bodied off the U.S. right back and powered his well-placed shot by goalkeeper Brady Scott for the opener against the run of play.
The U.S., to its credit, didn't really alter its approach, and it was rewarded six minutes later. Dest made up for his gaffe by having a key role in the intricate build-up in the final third and taking a layoff pass from Paxton Pomykal before looking to spring Tim Weah wide to his left. It looked at first as if Dest's touch was overhit, but Weah tracked it down and turned in a perfect cross for Brandon Servania. The FC Dallas midfielder redirected the cross home from six yards out, bringing the U.S. even at 1-1.
Ukraine retook the lead in the 51st minute off a set piece. A lightly marked Denys Popov powerfully headed home Buletsa's corner kick, delivering what ultimately wound up being the decisive strike.
From there, the USA appeared to be frustrated by a supremely organized opponent. In one instance, Weah appeared to be lining up what could've been a spectacular play, trying to put the ball behind the high Ukrainian line at the center circle and use his pace to regain possession on a breakaway. Valeriy Bondar happily accepted the yellow card that came along with his professional foul, though, not allowing the U.S. forward to find his way through.
And that was the theme of the opener. The U.S. largely did what it wanted to over the first hour of the match and appeared to have ideas, but as Ukraine's resistance continued to win out, those ideas became less and less fruitful.
"I think we did a lot of good things today," Ramos said following the match. "Unfortunately we couldn’t get more goals, but overall I’m happy with the team."
There's little margin for error in the attempt to flip that script on Monday.