The United States U-20 MYNT closes out their so far successful group stage against Slovakia on Friday, with their advancement to the final 16 already secured.
While to a great extent, much of the pressure is off on Friday, the team will still need a positive performance in order to claim first place. Due to Ecuador’s win over Slovakia on Tuesday night, the final order of the top three teams of the will be fully determined by Friday’s outcome.
The formula is simple: a draw or win for Mikey Varas’ young squad will see them take Group B, and set up a Round of 16 matchup against one of the third-place qualifiers.
However, should Slovakia manage to take the win, then the final order will come down to tiebreakers, most of which will not favor the Americans.
Most importantly, since their margin of victory against Fiji was by one less goal than Slovakia’s, who only lost by a single goal to Ecuador on Tuesday, they would lose out to Slovakia in the case of a three-way tie.
Similarly, Ecuador already has the same number of goals scored as the Americans, and the realistic case is that they will push for a big win against Fiji on Friday, which could very well give them an edge of goal differential.
In short, despite having their qualification already ensured regardless of the result, there is still significant motivation to fight for a draw or win to ensure what should be a more straightforward Round of 16 opponent.
Their opponents Slovakia are by no means an unmanageable task, however considering the Americans’ problems in and around the penalty area during the first hour-plus against Fiji, nothing can be taken for granted.
The team is coached by Albert Rusnák, whose son of the same name has played against many of the MLS-based members of the US team as a winger for Seattle Sounders. Whether Rusnák will gain an advantage from the inherent familiarity with the American domestic league and some of the players his team is set to face due to the obligatory duty of a father to watch his son’s games is yet to be seen.
However, in contrast to both the Ecuadorians and Fijians, the Slovakia squad does have quite a number of players with first-team, top-flight experience in the country’s domestic league.
The team draws heavily from Slovakian Fortuna Liga teams AS Trenčín and MŠK Žilina, with a total of eight out of the 21-player roster on those two teams. A half-dozen of the team already have more than 20 first-team appearances in the Fortuna Liga, with striker Timotej Jambor looking to be the biggest goalscoring threat.
In short, while Ecuador might have been the most talented opponent of the group and Fiji the most frustrating, the Slovakians might represent the trickiest and most seasoned foe.
Still, having had the opportunity to rotate many of his starters in Tuesday’s underwhelming win, Varas will have the luxury of selection, even if several players will need to be careful to avoid an unwanted suspension.
Joshua Wynder, Jack McGlynn, and Diego Luna are each on a yellow card, meaning they will miss the Round of 16 should they pick up another booking on Friday. Nevertheless, it would not be a surprise to see all three in the starting lineup.
Luna has proven to be a particularly dangerous weapon in the tournament so far for Varas, scoring the opening goal against Fiji, and having enough near misses over the first two games to tease of what could be in store.
He linked up particularly well with Cade Cowell during the final phase of the game against Fiji, and the pair should be given another crack against the Slovakians.
The team was defensively strong in both of the first two games, and currently remains the final representative of the 24-team field to not have conceded a goal so far. This could prompt Varas to return to his first-game back line of Wynder, Brandan Craig, Caleb Wiley and Justin Che, although this would entail deploying Jonathan Gomez in a more advanced role after he took up his usual left-back spot against Fiji.
Another decision will be whether to stick with team captain Daniel Edelman in the central holding midfield role, or go with relative youngster Obed Vargas. Vargas did well against a higher quality of opponent in Ecuador, but the experienced Edelman is more likely to get the nod.
Even with Rokas Pukštas and Kevin Paredes unavailable until the knockout, Varas is still well-staffed (or at least staffed well enough) up front, particularly if Cowell and Luna can be counted upon to continue their momentum. After Darren Yapi simply couldn’t put away his numerous chances on Tuesday, the central role will likely fall to Cowell, although Quinn Sullivan or Luna could also join the tip of the spear in a more false-nine role.
As with the first two games, Friday’s matchup will kick off at 3pm local time, 2pm Eastern US time, in the Estadio San Juan del Bicentenario in the city of San Juan.