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USA shows positives despite setback
Instead of shutting up shop and spending 90 minutes trying to disrupt Spain, the United States men's national team pursued a different approach in its 4-1 defeat in the opening match of the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
It came out and played.
The tactical setup – predicated on high pressure and possession – marked a significant departure from previous attempts to foil Spain. It produced the unexpected benefit of allowing the United States to establish a foothold in the game (the Americans actually enjoyed a narrow advantage in possession at halftime). It also heaped a significant burden on the front six to make good use of that time on the ball.
Keeping the ball is all well and good, but the possession matters little without the corresponding movement to propel it or the mandatory incisiveness to validate it. On those counts, the US struggled mightily. The bright Luis Gil – scorer of a fine and potentially influential consolation goal in the final quarter of an hour – created a wonderful chance for Alonso Hernández in the early stages, but the Spanish held their ground, repelled the static Americans and waited for the openings to emerge.
Barcelona's Gerard Deulofeu scored twice to help Spain defeat the United States' U-20 squad (Photo: Gero Breloer/AP Images).
And they inevitably did as the United States pushed its makeshift back four – stripped of suspended center back Shane O'Neill – toward midfield and tasked its midfielders with exerting immediate pressure on the ball when Spain obtained possession. The dearth of cohesiveness in both respects provided Spain with ample latitude to wrest control of the proceedings.
Jesé's opener after five minutes supplied a sign of things to come from Spain on the day. Gerard Deulofeu rampaged down the right flank and reached the byline. He found ample time and space to serve the ball across for the Real Madrid man to coolly slot home the opener.
By setting out its stall further up the field, the Americans left plenty of room behind for Spain to play over the top of a back four – with the potential exception of DeAndre Yedlin – that simply could not cope with their opposite numbers in one-versus-one situations.
It took some time for Spain to find its measure in front of goal as it coped with the United States work in possession, but the tournament favorites struck twice shortly before the break to secure the points. Deulofeu produced a goal of considerable quality after 41 minutes when he rode through a Caleb Stanko tackle on the edge of the penalty area and sumptuously curled home inside the far post. Jesé capped off the late burst by finishing off a quick move – again stemming from a quick diagonal ball into space – to remove all doubt from the match.
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Deulofeu grabbed a deserved second just after the hour mark by racing behind the American line once more. His diagonal run across the back four and into the ample space provided represented the sort of clever run missing from the US attack. His tidy finish raised questions about how many goals Spain would accumulate on the day, but the tempo dropped after that point and Gil engineered a wonderful solo goal to reduce the margin of defeat.
United States manager Tab Ramos deserves some credit for encouraging his players to embrace the challenge instead of setting out to frustrate. His personnel problems at the back – Juan Pablo Ocegueda and Javan Torre looked out of their depth on this day – made that gambit a particularly risky one on this day. The corresponding punishment inevitably followed as the Americans suffered for their endeavor. In the end, the United States can count itself fortunate to avoid a heavier defeat, one that could have crippled its goal difference and reduced its chances of progressing as one of the top four third-place finishers.
Ramos must now ponder how exactly to alter his side for the critical game against France on Monday. The lack of adjustments during the course of this game do not inspire much hope for rectifying the concerns in such short order, but the need to play a less adventurous line – even with O'Neill restored – is evident given the inadequacies in other areas. Hernández's halftime departure in the wake of a heavy challenge may force other alterations in the attacking third.
Those changes, however, may not temper the ambition and the deportment. Ramos must tweak matters in order to achieve the proper balance and mitigate some of the evident weaknesses exposed by the Spaniards, but he will not likely turn this side into a conservative outfit. This unorthodox choice represents a breath of fresh air from an American team, but it will force the US to improve quickly in order to ensure the vision produces results instead of silver linings.