U.S. win in U-20 tourney opener no easy feat

Posted by Jeff Carlisle

Jamie McDonald/Getty ImagesLuis Gil, shown playing a U.S. U-17 game in 2009, scored the first American goal Monday on a penalty kick.

The U.S. U-20 national team made the desired start in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament, beating Haiti 2-1 Monday in Puebla, Mexico. But the result was about all the Americans had to celebrate, as the U.S. delivered a very uneven performance, leaving plenty of room for improvement for manager Tab Ramos’ side.

First-half goals from Luis Gil and Daniel Cuevas put the U.S. in control, at least on the scoreboard. But Haiti was every bit the Americans' equal from the run of play, and only some desperate defending allowed the U.S. to maintain its advantage in the first half.

The U.S. backline looked vulnerable, with the central duo of Caleb Stanko and Shane O'Neill often out of sync. But this was a known weakness heading into the tournament, leaving one to wonder why the U.S. midfield provided so little defensive support. The Americans were all too eager to go forward, which had the effect of leaving holding midfielder Will Trapp to fend for himself in the middle of the park. The result was that the Haiti was able to penetrate its attacking third with relative ease.

That the U.S. found itself ahead was due almost entirely to the efforts of Cuevas. His surging run past Jude Saint-Louis saw him win a penalty less than two minutes in, and Gil easily dispatched the ensuing spot kick to put the U.S. ahead, 1-0.

Cuevas doubled the advantage in the 26th minute. Mario Rodriguez's intended cross for Jose Villarreal was too high, but Cuevas chased down the loose ball, and lashed home his shot from a tight angle.

Otherwise, Haiti showed more initiative, and it must be said, patience. O’Neill was called upon to clear John Estama’s shot off the line in the ninth minute, and winger Jean Dany Maurice was causing plenty of problems with his pace as well. Meanwhile, the U.S. was too often content to try beat opponents off the dribble rather than look to combine. Except, that is, for Cuevas, who beat his marker to the byline again in the 41st minute only to see Gil fire his pass well over the bar.

Haiti pulled a goal back just four minutes into the second half when Wilberne Augustmat broke free past Boyd Okuono to fire home from a sharp angle. Estama then missed a glorious chance in the 62nd minute when a cross fell to him at the far post, but he could only fire high over the bar.

The tide was then stemmed thanks to a tactical switch by Ramos. Benji Joya had already begun to drop back deeper in midfield to give Trapp more help, but the introduction of Mikey Lopez in the 64th minute saw the U.S. play with two dedicated holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1, with the result that the U.S. looked much more secure defensively. Aside from one late header, the chances for Haiti dried up.

Given the qualifying failures of the last U-20 side as well as the U-23s last year, the Americans will gladly take the three points. But given how the group stage will impact the opponent in the all-or-nothing quarterfinal that determines qualification, Ramos will no doubt demand a more composed performance from his side on both sides of the field in the group finale against Costa Rica on Friday.

Man of the Match: Haiti’s Maurice could make a fair shout to garner this label, but given that the U.S. prevailed, Cuevas takes the honors. The U.S. winger had a hand in both goals, and while his influence waned somewhat in the second half, he should have been granted another penalty when he looked to have been hauled down in the 74th minute. On a night in which notable U.S. performances were rare, Cuevas stood out.

Talking points:

• Gil was by no means the worst performer on the field, and he twice came close to scoring. But more was expected of the Real Salt Lake midfielder given his experience, especially in terms of connecting passes and managing the tempo. No doubt, he’ll be looking for more consistency against Costa Rica.
• One question that Ramos faces heading into the Costa Rica match is how to align his midfield. The aforementioned formation switch gave the U.S. better balance between attack and defense and Ramos could do worse than have Lopez on from the start alongside Trapp. That would provide more protection to the back line, while also freeing up the likes of Gil, Joya, and Cuevas to focus more on attack. This move might also allow the U.S. to stay more compact as they were too often stretched out from front to back.
• One lineup surprise was the omission of Juan Pablo Ocegueda in favor of Javan Torre at left back. Torre defended decently, but offered little going forward. Even if Ramos goes away from a 4-3-3, the inclusion of Ocegueda would provide more attacking variety, and allow Cuevas to play closer to Rodriguez.
• Is it time to panic? Hardly. Remember that this U-20 side is missing plenty of players due to injury and clubs not releasing them. If the team does qualify, it will have a very different look come summer. That said, Haiti was thought to be one of the weaker sides in the tournament, and the sight of the U.S. laboring to victory is sobering to say the least.

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