With yet another group game match on Tuesday in the books, the USMYNT U-20 squad are through to the knock-out rounds after a win over Ecuador. We take a closer look at how it all went down, the context of some of the key plays within the flow of the game, and what it means for the team going forward.
With one game remaining in group stage play, the United States U-20 team picked up the necessary three points by defeating Fiji 3-0 to secure qualification to the knockout stages. Goals from Diego Luna, Cade Cowell, and Caleb Wiley were enough to see off a Fiji side that performed beyond their expectations.
But honestly, it was a little disappointing because Team USA wasted numerous scoring opportunities despite keeping Fiji under constant pressure. The contest saw no goals until the 66th-minute mark when substitute Luna scored a worldie from outside the box.
Let’s take a look at how Mikey Varas team’s second game went, as it happened:
Team USA (4-3-3): 1. Gabriel Slonina (GK) — 2. Michael Halliday, 14. Markus Ferkranus, 5. Brandan Craig, 13. Jonathan Gomez — 8. Jack McGlynn, 6. Daniel Edelman (Obed Vargas, 79′), 16. Owen Wolff (Niko Tsakiris, 46′) — 7. Quinn Sullivan (Diego Luna, 46′), 19. Darren Yapi (Caleb Wiley, 75′), 9. Cade Cowell.
Mikey Varas makes five changes to his starting lineup from the game against Ecuador on Saturday, as he concentrates on rotation to reduce fatigue for the games ahead. A change in overall formation is also seen as Varas’ men are deployed in a 4-3-3 shape, opting out of the 3-5-2 seen against the South Americans.
We’re off once against in San Juan, Argentina, and the US spring into the opposition final third. By the 10th minute, Darren Yapi is at the end of a teasing ball but his shot just flashed in front of goal. However, the flag was raised and it didn’t matter. Early warning signs from the Americans.
Through the first ten minutes, the US has had almost complete possession, with Fiji unable to leave their own half. When they do use the long ball to cross the halfway line, a Fiji foul occurs, which causes them to lose possession. However, the Americans have been very patient, and Yapi’s chance was their first real chance.
In minute 15, Quinn Sullivan and Cowell both miss the target with good opportunities to do so, after taking shots from good attacking positions. Cowell’s chance resulted from a good attacking-third turnover that captain Daniel Edelman forced, while Sullivan’s opportunity came off a well-worked right-side move in which he brightly created space for himself at the right post. The United States won’t want to waste too many of these opportunities against bigger tests as the tournament goes on.
The team has practically held all possession up tot his point, but is absolutely toothless at the moment.
A similar attacking scenario takes place in the 17th minute. In a similar position to where Sullivan missed a chance a few minutes earlier, Cowell again enters a dangerous area, but this time he hits the ball straight at the Fiji goalkeeper. It’s a poor finish from a risky position where a more robust effort might have generated the opener.
Another chance for the States comes in the 20th minute as Sullivan is fouled, giving the Americans a free kick from about 28 yards away. Jack McGlynn is given the opportunity to take, and with a commendable effort, he compels Fiji keeper Aydin Mustahib to make another save just to his right. On a cutback from Owen Wolff, Sullivan again creates a chance for himself by recycling possession, but this time he puts it just wide left of the woodwork. Although there was plenty of room, he could have given the product at the end of that run to Cade Cowell instead of taking it himself.
Either Fiji has improved in the three days since their opener, or the Yanks have just been missing their shooting boots. Fiji was down 2-0 to Slovakia by the half-hour mark in their previous match, and the tiny South Pacific islands are now holding off the North American champs.
The last big chance of the half comes in the 34th minute. A Fijian defender botches the clearance of a cross into the box, and Yapi receives the ball in plenty of space at the top of the penalty area. Despite having the entire goal to shoot at, Peter Ravai manages to block Yapi’s shot. He took too long and made a poor effort that required some improvement. That was yet another opportunity that was wasted; the Colorado Rapids’ forward needs to be quicker than that.
Nothing notable is to mention, aside from the American wastefulness of many high-percentage chances, as the two teams head down the tunnel with the score level at 0-0. The United States had a shockingly poor first 45 minutes in the final third, failing to score against a team that they were, with all due respect, expected to thrash.
Varas makes a few substitutions as the second half gets underway. Niko Tsakiris replaces Wolff, who switched positions from wing to midfield in the first match against Ecuador to this one. Sullivan, who struggled in the final third for the first 45 minutes, is replaced by Luna.
Early-on, Fiji is awarded a corner, and on their first attempt, force Gabriel Slonina make a fine stop to deny the underdogs.
Just past the hour mark, and we finally see the first goal of the game; it comes from the substitute, Luna, in minute 66. With his back to the goal, Cowell receives the initial pass. Although he was dispossessed, went down under the challenge, and requested a penalty, but the referee allowed play to continue. Luna then pounced on the loose ball to score the much-needed goal.
Hungry for more, Luna skies a brilliant opportunity to double the lead just moments after his first score. It’s an eight-yard cross from deep down the left side to Luna sitting in the middle of the unmarked field, but he rushes it, and hits the ball on the first try, sending it into the moon.
Wiley enters the match for Yapi minutes later, ending a performance for the Rapids forward that could have, and probably should have come away with at least one goal to his name.
In minute 78, Cowell, who was unmarked at the far post, receives a precise cross from Jonathan Gomez, who delivered low to his feet, but his one-time shot is missed. He claims emphatically that the ball deflected off a defender on its way over the end-line, but the referee awards a goal kick because there didn’t seem to be any touch-through.
Vargas then replaces Edelman in the midfield after that chance. The 1-0 scoreline will do the trick, but the team wants more.
The floodgates are finally beginning to open, as minute 88 sees a beautiful goal from Cowell, who has been threatening the Fiji defense all evening. Cowell is on top of the penalty area when Luna pulls down an entry feed with his back to goal. The San Jose attacker dribbles past a defender and executes an exquisite finish. It’s undoubtedly the US’s best attacking sequence of the game, and it comes at a crucial time when the team needed to show more quality.
This goal also decisively wraps up the three points and the US officially becomes the first nation to qualify for the next round.
The officials announce 11 additional minutes due to the large amount of dead-time coming from injuries and time-wasting tactics, mainly those coming from the Fijian side.
Just seconds after the announcement, Cowell could well be on a hat-trick. The San Jose winger unleashes a strong volley, blocking his initial shot but converting the rebound from just left of the penalty spot with a leg whip. His powerful blast bounces off the woodwork and hits the underside.
Seconds later, he strikes the post, smashing the woodwork twice quickly, one after the other! His curler only reaches the far post and flies out after he receives a feed from Luna. It could’ve been 5-0 to the States in just the past few minutes. The Luna-Cowell connection has brought pure chaos this half, and will hopefully be a hint for Varas about how to maximize the team’s talent in the coming games.
Fiji finally gives in after the enormous pressure piles on and leaks another goal in the 99th minute. This time it comes off a set piece, and it’s a brutal bit of goalkeeping from Mustahib to allow Wiley’s tap-in. Brandan Craig’s low, slow-rolling free-kick somehow evades Mustahib’s late dive and hits the post, and it rebounds directly into the line of Wiley trailing the play for an uncontested tap-in. The match will eventually end, 3-0 to the USA.
Despite winning 3-0, Varas men should’ve won by an even more significant margin, but three points is three points, and the USMYNT will take it. They were much sharper in the second half, largely thanks to the introduction of Diego Luna, my undisputed man of the match. The California native made it all happen in the attack, and the team looked rejuvenated after coming off the bench.
The win sees Team USA leapfrog Slovakia, as the Europeans fell 2-1 to Ecuador on Tuesday night. The boys in red, white, and blue sit top of the group, with a perfect record as they face Slovakia in their final group game, hoping to clinch the top spot in Group B. A draw will do the trick, but a win will be so much more satisfying.