This edition of the under-20 World Cup team for the United States has a chance to make history. A win against Serbia Sunday morning would guarantee this squad a place in the semifinals, something the team has not done since 1989.
In advancing to the semifinals with their 1-0 win over Colombia, the U-20s matched their 2007 counterparts, a team many U.S. soccer players and pundits consider the best ever. That U-20 team had players like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and the phenom formerly known as Freddy Adu, along with numerous faces who have earned starting roles in MLS. Should the likes of Emerson Hyndman, Gedion Zelalem, and Rubio Rubin pull off this surprise victory against Serbia, they could cement their place as, dare I say it, the best youth national team in United States history. With that type of legacy on the line, believe that the United States will be very invested in beating Serbia in New Zealand.
While Serbia’s men’s team ranks just 45th in the often scrutinized FIFA rankings, their youth national team packs quite the punch. Every bit deserving of their quarterfinal appearance, the Serbians possess the strength and athleticism that unsettled the United States when they played Ukraine in the group stage. Serbia narrowly won the difficult Group D, beating out Uruguay, Mexico and underdog quarterfinalist Mali to reach the knockout stage. Their round of 16 game against Hungary started very nervy for the Serbians, but ultimately ended in victory for the eastern European side. Hungary scored early, then the Serbians went down to ten men, only to have substitute Ivan Saponjic even the game in the dying minutes. In extra time, Serbia ricocheted a goal off a defender, and celebrated a Hungary own goal and a place in the semifinals. United States will have to be extremely wary of the Serbian fitness and make sure they don’t allow the mistakes the Hungarians made against their rivals.
If the United States wants to advance in this tournament, they proved against Colombia that it will come down to defense. The Colombians boasted one of the best offensive attacks in the entire tournament, yet the U.S. was able to hold them to a shutout. Most of that was due to the play of center back pairing Cameron Carter-Vickers and Matt Miazga. Miazga, a fixture in the New York Red Bulls starting lineup, and Carter-Vickers, the pride of the Tottenham Hotspur youth system, have locked down opponents the entire tournament and will need to put on their best performance to contain the burly, athletic strikers of Serbia.
The good news for Carter-Vickers and Miazga is they know they can count on their goalkeeper, Zack Steffen. As Colombia inched towards an equalizing goal, Steffen provided a number of key saves in the second half. None was more important than his 83rd minute penalty stop, which saved the U.S. lead, earning him some much deserved praise from U-20s coach Tab Ramos. With Steffan between the posts, the United States’ defenders can be very confident in their ability to take risks to stop the Serbian attack.
While Serbia will certainly be favored heading into this contest, the United States has a very good shot at making the semifinal. If the U.S. defense can contain the Serbian attack, they can book their spot in the next round. The fewer goals scored in this contest, the better chance the Americans have of winning. Defense will be key, with the United States looking to score on the counter attack. Look forward to a tight, defensive contest that will come down to the final minutes.