The delayed draw for the upcoming 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup handed Mikey Varas and his squad what looks to be a gift-wrapped path to the knockout round, with the team likely favorites to finish atop their relatively weak group.
The draw, originally scheduled for late-March in Bali before the removal of Indonesia as hosts, took place in Zürich, Switzerland on Friday afternoon. Argentina formally assumed hosting duties several days prior, handing the team a lifeline after they embarrassingly failed to even come close to qualifying in the 2023 South American U-20 Championship earlier this year.
The draw was about as friendly to Varas and his team as one could hope for, setting up a trio of group-stage games against Ecuador, Fiji and Slovakia, all of whom will rightly be considered underdogs to the young Yanks.
Fiji qualified by way of their second-place finish in the Oceania qualifying tournament in September, 2022, ending up as runners-up to New Zealand.
Ecuador grabbed the final qualification spot from South America in February, only winning one of their five games in the final stage of the tournament, and finishing a wide margin behind Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia. Ultimately, they benefitted from Argentina’s failure to even pass the initial group stage of the tournament. Nevertheless, they will have some hope of a deep run after finishing third place in the previous 2019 edition in Poland.
Slovakia also barely scraped through to qualification, which was tied to last summer’s UEFA U-19 Championship. They finished third in their group behind automatic qualifiers France and Italy, which gave them the opportunity to eke out a narrow 1-0 win over Austria to claim the confederation’s fifth and final spot.
Since gaining their independence after the breakup of Yugoslavia, Slovakia has only qualified other time for the tournament, reaching the round of 16 in the 2003 edition in United Arab Emirates.
The Americans will open their tournament run against Ecuador on May 20, then face Fiji three days later, before closing out the group stage against Slovakia on May 26.
While it is often proven that “pride goeth before destruction”, it would take the most historical of collapses to see the US team not claim one of the top three spots ahead of Fiji, and likely with a strong enough goalscoring record to make the knockout.
Varas and his squad had a difficult final few warm-up games in March, most notably losing heavily to both France and England, although with a large number of the most important players such as Caleb Wiley, Cade Cowell, Jalen Neal, Daniel Edelman, Caden Clark and Brian Gutierrez missing from the roster.
Fellow CONCACAF team Guatemala, who were responsible for keeping Mexico out of this tournament and the 2024 Olympics, face a much tougher task in Group A with the hosts awaiting, although could have some confidence of claiming second place over Uzbekistan and New Zealand.
Group D is the toughest group of the tournament is without any doubt, with Italy, Brazil and Nigeria headlining a murderers’ row of teams on the docket for the Dominican Republic.
The overall tournament kicks off on May 20 with games from Groups A and B, with the final to be played on June 11.