The United States U-20 Men’s National Team remained perfect in this year’s World Cup, blowing past Round of 16 opponents New Zealand on Tuesday night to book their place in Sunday’s quarterfinal.
Mikey Varas and his young squad came into Tuesday’s game as undeniable favorites to beat their New Zealand counterparts, and proceeded to put in the type of dominant performance that one would hope and expect from a team with their significant edge.
The overmatched New Zealanders were far from toothless and did give keeper Gabriel Slonina a stronger test than he has had up to now in the tournament, but he came up with several big moments, and for the fourth time in as many games, the team shut out their opponents.
Led by strong performances, once again, by Cade Cowell and Diego Luna, along with the rest of the starting lineup, the team held the lion’s share of possession, and outshot their opponents by a 23-3 margin, putting eight of those shots on-target.
Shortly after a nervous few moments where a VAR review was needed to exclude the possibility of a handball in the US area, Owen Wolff opened the scoring for the team after the 14th minute.
Luna slid a short pass to Wolff at 30 yards straight out, seemingly with enough opposing defenders between him and goal to prevent any immediate danger. The Austin FC midfielder still spotted a narrow line towards the lower left corner and took his shot from distance.
While it had little power behind it, its perfect placement to the corner, combined with a moment of hesitation from keeper Kees Sims was just enough to allow it to roll over the line for the somewhat surprise 1-0 lead.
The deadly Luna-Cowell combination proved once again deadly just past the hour mark, effectively putting the game out of reach following a previously unfruitful stretch of domination by the team.
Luna received the ball just to the left of center and took a few steps towards goal before spotting Cowell moving into space on the left. He slid the ball to the San Jose prospect, who took a touch to settle it, waited for his marking defender to commit, and struck a hard, low shot to the right side for the 2-0 lead.
With 15 minutes left in regulation, Justin Che took the final crack at the ball from short-range to score the Americans’ third goal; but a run by Luna up the middle, followed by a cross from Cowell towards his attack partner in front of goal was the catalyst that ultimately left Luna’s blocked shot sitting in front of the open net.
The finale exclamation came from late substitute Rokas Pukštas, who entered the game in the 79th minute, and nailed Brandan Craig’s free kick from the left edge with an absolutely thunderous header that surely tested the structural integrity of the netting.
After nine minutes of added time, the final whistle mercifully blew, sending Varas and his team through to the quarter final, with what was undoubtedly their strongest performance of the tournament.
Next up for the Americans is the quarterfinal matchup on Sunday, June 4, which will see the team play the winner of Wednesday’s game between Gambia and Uruguay.