For a third straight U-20 World Cup, the U.S. U-20 men's national team is out in the quarterfinal stage.
Looking to reach the semifinals for the first time since 1989, the U.S. men succumbed to defeat against South American U-20 champions Ecuador, falling 2-1 after a thrilling matchup in Poland.
Ecuador, which beat fellow South American side Uruguay to reach the quarterfinals, was largely dominant, especially in the first half as it pressed the U.S. and showed a flair for the spectacular. The U.S., with Alex Mendez and Chris Durkin back in the starting lineup after yellow-card suspensions for the round of 16 vs. France, was able to battle back from an early deficit thanks to a goal from Tim Weah, but that was short-lived, after Ecuador scored just before halftime to restore its advantage–and ultimately score the goal that secured its semifinal berth.
Ecuador's Jose Cifuentes opened the scoring with a stunner at the half-hour mark, capitalizing on a turnover in the Ecuador half and then uncorking a right-footed blast from long distance that beat goalkeeper David Ochoa.
Mendez came inches from equalizing on a free kick soon after, but Weah took matters into his own hands by deftly rifling home a volley off a U.S. corner kick, making it 1-1 six minutes later.
Ecuador went ahead at the end of the first half in semi-controversial fashion, though. Another long-range blast beat Ochoa but clanged off the crossbar. Ecuador recovered the rebound and Leonardo Campana crossed for Jhon Espinoza, whose sliding finish put it into the back of the net. The U.S. clamored for an offside call, but a VAR check revealed that with both players behind the last line of defense, Espinoza was just behind the ball when Campana played it to him, and the goal stood.
The U.S. likely should have equalized again in the 57th minute. Ulysses Llanez, again making an impact off the bench as he's done throughout the competition, set up the USA's leading scorer, Sebastian Soto, in the center of the box. Soto's first touch took him away from goal, though, and his outside-of-the-foot chance hit the side netting from close range, keeping things at 2-1. Llanez appeared to have a shooting lane himself before defering to Soto, but he was unselfish in the moment–perhaps too unselfish given how things unfolded.
Ochoa kept it at 2-1 with point-blank save in the 68th minute. Alexander Alvarado got in behind the defense for a free header, but it was directed right at the U.S. goalkeeper, who made a strong save. On an ensuing foul by the sideline, Ecuador was given a free kick and nearly scored from that, with Jackson Porozo's header glancing off the crossbar.
Ochoa made another big save in the 83rd minute, denying Campana's powerful blast to keep the U.S. within striking distance.
The U.S. threw everything forward looking to find a late equalizer, but Ecuador maintained its level of pressure and defended well enough to see out the result.
Ecuador will play South Korea in the semifinals, while Ukraine and Italy are slated for the other pairing in the final four.
For the U.S., the defeat will sting, but ultimately may be a good omen for its opponents. In 2015, it lost to eventual champion Serbia. In 2017, the Americans lost to eventual runner-up Venezuela.