Jonathan Gomez was the hero for the Americans in their U-20 World Cup opener against Ecuador, with the makeshift midfielder’s injury-time goal netting the team the three points in a perfect start.
For the team’s opening game in Group B, head coach Mikey Varas had a few tricks up his sleeve, deviating from the expected starting XI with several switches.
Caleb Wiley and Justin Che started as the team’s outside backs, flanking Joshua Wynder and Brandan Craig, pushing the Real Sociedad prospect Gomez into a more advanced left midfield role. While it would take until late in the game for the benefit of this shift to become evident, placing Gomez closer to the opposing goal proved to be the game-changing decision.
Team captain Daniel Edelman was also rested for the opener, with 17 year-old Seattle player Obed Vargas taking up the main defensive role alongside Jack McGlynn on the left of the middle three.
The front three consisted of Quinn Sullivan, Diego Luna and Owen Wolff, highlighting the curious decision by Varas to forgo a traditional striker in favor of a trio of dynamic, attacking midfielders.
Despite nearly playing to a scoreless draw, the young Americans were the more threatening of the two teams, holding a strong edge on possession, putting six of their 13 shots on goal, while largely stifling any danger from their Ecuadorian counterparts, who were unable to force keeper Gabriel Slonina to make any saves in the game.
The Ecuadorians’ only real threat of the game came early, when Alan Minda was able to advance into a bit of open space in the right side of the area and target the wide-open Kendry Paez near the far post with a low cross. However, Vargas lunged forward with his left foot, clearing the ball from what would have been an easy tap-in for the future Chelsea player.
Wiley fired a poorly cleared corner just high in the 50th minute from close to 30 yards out in a surprisingly close opportunity, although Luna was inches away from putting the Americans ahead just before the hour.
Ecuadorian keeper Gilmar Napa made a shambolic attempt to clear a long ball back upfield, instead smacking his own defender Christian Garcia squarely in the face. Luna had been tracking the original kick into the opposing area, ran onto the deflection off of Garcia and tried to lob a shot towards the right side of goal, however it rolled inches wide of the upright.
In the final minutes of regulation, substitute Darren Yapi ended a nice run with a shot that forced Napa into a save, then Gomez wove his way into the right side of the area near the endline and also unleashed a shot that Napa blocked with his feet.
With the game looking headed to a scoreless draw, a result that would have suited both teams, the consistent pressure from the Americans finally generated the winner.
Yapi drew a trio of Ecuadorians momentarily in his direction around 40 yards out, before releasing Wolff on the left with a clever back-heel. The FC Austin attacker took one touch to settle the ball before lobbing it to Gomez on the opposite side.
The Texan gained control with is chest, allowing him to cut inwards, then unleashed a blinding left-footed volley just beyond the top edge of the 18-yard box that flew into the upper right corner of Ecuador’s goal.
The victory already takes a considerable amount of pressure off of the team’s shoulders, as the expected victory against minnows Fiji on Tuesday will essentially ensure their spot in the knockout round through one way or another.
Still, the team will be aiming to win Group B to ensure a third-place opponent in their Round of 16 game, which will also mean putting in a strong performance against Slovakia three days later.