With a perfect run through the group stage now under their belt, the United States U20 MNT will attempt to extend their stay in Argentina when they host New Zealand on Tuesday in the Round of 16.
Similar to how they kicked off the tournament just over one week ago, Mikey Varas and his squad will be the first to get the ball rolling in the knockout round, lining up against Group A third-place finishers New Zealand.
The team will have to balance the temptation to look past their clear underdog opponents, with an appropriately confident approach that they should be able to take, with nearly all factors gathered in their corner.
New Zealand regressed as the group stage wore on, narrowly winning their opener against Honduras, before conceding an equalizer to Uzbekistan in the dying seconds and subsequently being puréed into kiwi smoothies in their 5-0 loss to Argentina.
Their first two results still saw them easily qualify for the knockout as the second-best third-place team of the six groups, however they are still coming in as the most bruised.
Much like the Americans’ second group opponent Fiji, the Kiwis, known more commonly as the Junior All Whites, are coached by an Englishman, Darren Bazeley, who spent his final playing years and the majority of his subsequent coaching career in New Zealand.
While Bazeley did have a short run as an assistant in MLS with Colorado, he has coached at various levels and in numerous roles within the New Zealand setup, and has a strong background with current USMNT coach Anthony Hudson from their mutual time in the country.
In terms of depth, experience and overall quality, there is a gulf between the two teams, however the Americans’ first-hour experience against tournament minnows Fiji prove that this type of on-paper advantage cannot be expected to immediately translate onto the field.
Perhaps the most interesting inclusion in the squad is midfielder Jay Herdman, son of Canadian head coach John Herdman, who has New Zealand citizenship through his birth in the country during his father’s early years as a coach.
Otherwise, the squad includes a number of players in the Wellington Phoenix organization, which competes in the Australian-dominated A-League, however defender Finn Surman and midfielder Jackson Manuel are the only players with any first-team experience to note.
All signs point towards a convincing American victory on Tuesday, which is exactly the sort of situation that should keep fans and the coaching staff awake a night trying to figure out exactly how the trap is being set.
Varas will finally have his full complement of players for this game, after Rokas Pukštas and Kevin Paredes were confirmed to have arrived following the delayed releases by their respective clubs.
Pukštas has been with the team for several days now and could be in line to start as the main attacking midfielder, however Paredes will almost certainly spend the majority, if not all of Tuesday’s game on the bench since he played in Wolfsburg’s Bundesliga finale on Saturday.
Apart from replacing Owen Wolff with the aforementioned Pukštas as the central driving force, Varas has no obvious need to significantly tweak his lineup compared to the 11 players he put out against Ecuador on Friday.
Diego Luna and Cade Cowell were dangerous as the front-two and should retain their starting spots. Jonathan Gomez could potentially return to the starting lineup to replace Michael Halliday in a wide role opposite to Caleb Wiley, but a change to the central midfield duo of Daniel Edelman and Obed Vargas would be an unnecessary risk after the pair performed well together in the last outing.
Should they come out on top after tomorrow evening, the team will have the winner of Thursday’s matchup of Gambia and Uruguay awaiting on Sunday evening. This would give the team an unthinkable five-day break between games, which would be a convenient benefit as they try to bring the pair of late arrivals up to full speed.
The game kicks off at 2:30pm local time, 1:30pm eastern US time on Tuesday, at the Estadio Malvinas Argentinas in Mendoza.