The United States U-20 MYNT finished a successful run through the group stage, beating Slovakia by a pair of goals to secure a Round of 16 game against a third-place team.
Only needing a draw to secure top spot in the group, Mikey Varas’ young American squad went one step further, scoring a goal on either side of the half to finish the group stage with a perfect nine points.
Varas opted for a more robust lineup, putting three central defenders – Joshua Wynder, Justin Che and Brandan Craig – in the back line, while packing his five-man midfield with both Obed Vargas and Daniel Edelman in central roles.
Caleb Wiley and Michael Halliday were deployed on the wings, while Owen Wolff was the main attacking core of the midfield, supporting forwards Cade Cowell and Diego Luna, who earned the expected starting role together after shining in the second half against Fiji.
Despite what could be considered a more conservative, defensive posture, a reasonable approach with only a draw needed to top the group, the Americans were by far the more aggressive and dominant of the two teams from start to finish.
They had more than twice as many attempt than their Slovakian counterparts, and put eight of their shots on frame compared to half as many for the opposition. Apart from the goals, perhaps the most important stat line for the team was a total of zero yellow cards, meaning that the full team, plus the two late additions Kevin Paredes and Rokas Pukštas, will be available for their upcoming Round of 16 game against a yet-to-be-determined opponent.
Cowell was wasteful with his first golden opportunity just before the 27-minute mark, when he tracked a long ball deep into Slovakian territory, leaving his only marking defender in the dust with a quick cut inside.
With his first touch, he popped the ball over Slovakian keeper Adam Hrdina, who had charged off his line, to set up a somewhat challenging, but absolutely doable shot on the open goal. However, he scuffed his attempt to hit the ball with the inside of his left foot, allowing the rest of the opposing defense time to recover and scuttle the follow-up.
Perhaps driven forward by his wasted chance, he scored the opener 11 minutes later in spectacular fashion. The San Jose attacker collected the ball near the midfield stripe, and proceeded to beat a fleet of Slovakian defenders in his run into the left side of the area.
With no supporting cast having caught up to provide support, his only option was to take the final shot himself, which he precisely targeted in the narrow line between Hrdina and the left upright, giving the team the 1-0 lead.
The Slovakians came excruciatingly close to equalizing in the 41st minute, with Leo Sauer’s blast from outside the box forcing Gabriel Slonina into a highlight-reel, diving save to preserve the lead.
Cowell came close to a repeat of his first score 11 minutes after the half, cutting across the field from the left flank and aiming a low shot towards the lower right corner, but this time Hrdina was able to make the save.
Moments after Luna hit the upright with a 67th-minute attempt, Niko Tsakiris came into the game for Wolff as a part of a double switch, and Varas’ move paid off in the dying seconds as the San Jose midfielder killed off any last hopes of the Slovakians.
Just past the 95-minute mark, Tsakiris received a diagonal pass into the left side of the area from substitute Quinn Sullivan, and scrapped his way to the edge of the six-yard box before striking a low shot just inside the near post for the final 2-0 advantage.
The victory, combined with Ecuador’s 9-0 victory over Fiji, meant that the South Americans finish second behind the US squad on six points, with Slovakia in third place on three, awaiting the results of the remaining groups before knowing whether they will secure one of the 16 knock-out spots.
While one could hardly accuse the Americans of being a scoring juggernaut across the three games – they scored a total of six goals, with half of those coming against lowly Fiji – the overall performance is a historical performance for the program.
For the first time in a total of 17 appearances in the U-20 World Cup, the team maintained a perfect record in the group stage. This is only the second time a US Men’s team has done this at the U-17, U-20 or senior level, with the U-17 team also winning all three of their games in the 1991 World Cup in Italy.
The team will also end up as the only one of the 24 entrants in this edition to concede no goals during their three group games. The 2005 U-20 team also shut out all three of their group opponents in the Netherlands, although were eliminated in the Round of 16.
The next game for Varas and his squad will be on Tuesday afternoon, in the first of eight knockout games in the round of 16 spread out over three days. They will face either the third-place finishers in Group A, New Zealand, or the equivalent from Group D, which realistically could be any of Nigeria, Brazil or Italy.
That game will kick off at 2:30pm local time, 1:30pm eastern US time on Monday, at the Estadio Malvinas Argentinas in Mendoza.