After a series of head-scratching decisions resulted in a tenuous performance, Tim Weah came to the rescue to ensure a second-place group finish and a spot in the round of 16 in Poland.
The record will show that the USA won two of its three group games at the FIFA 2019 U-20 World Cup and reached the knockout stage without a problem–but that record would be a bit misleading.
The USA labored and struggled against Qatar and was bailed out by Tim Weah's 76th-minute goal in a 1-0 win Thursday, which secured a second-place finish in Group D, a point behind Ukraine. The result was overshadowed by the steps that went into what unfolded, though. Manager Tab Ramos trotted out an odd, defensive and imbalanced lineup against a side winless and goalless in two games, sending a message that the U.S. was really hoping not to lose as opposed to going for the win. There's nothing wrong with squad rotation and tactical changes, especially in a group stage of a tournament–provided they make sense. Ramos's really didn't, though.
Chris Gloster, Konrad De La Fuente, Chris Durkin and Alex Mendez were all carrying yellows, each one more card away from a one-game suspension. All of them started. Durkin, naturally, picked up a yellow card out of frustration in the 72nd minute, and he'll miss the round of 16. The same will happen for Mendez, whose rash tackle two minutes after Weah's opener resulted in his second yellow of the group stage. The decision making is purely on the players, but the likelihood of them being on the field at all was in Ramos's hands. Those are two of the USA's most influential players, and barring a Mali win over France in Friday's group games, the Americans will be playing Les Bleus severely short-handed.
Elsewhere, captain and center back Mark McKenzie was played out of position at right back–with natural fits Julian Araujo and Sergino Dest sitting on the bench–and he picked up a yellow card in the first half, one marked by the USA playing on its heels and unable to create anything of genuine substance.
It took a heroic save from goalkeeper David Ochoa, seeing his first action of the competition, to keep from Qatar going ahead. He slid off his line to rob Hashim Ali after Aboubacar Keita's mistake gifted Qatar a 2-on-1 that yielded a clean look from the center of the box.
The U.S. improved in the second half, and the introduction of Ulysses Llanez, and later Richie Ledezma, off the bench certainly made a difference. Pressure increased and eventually resulted in Qatar turning the ball over in its own third. Weah nutmegged a defender en route to a clinical finish, and the U.S., which still could have advanced with a draw as one of the top four third-place finishers, had the goal it needed to relax.
It could have been a more lopsided result–on the scoreboard at least–but Mendez had a penalty kick brilliantly saved by Shehab Ellethy, and Ledezma struck a blast off the crossbar to keep the score at 1-0.
Between the opening 2-1 loss to Ukraine, the subsequent 2-0 win over Nigeria and Thursday's group finale, the U.S. endured about an even split of negative and positive outcomes over its first three games in Poland. In order for the Americans to ensure there will be a fifth game–and a third straight trip to the quarterfinals–they'll need to get the personnel decisions right from the start and hope for contributions from players who were otherwise likely destined to be substitutes.