Concacaf’s new qualifying format for the two oldest youth age groups with world championships – the U-20 World Cup and the U-23 Olympics – is putting unprecedented pressure on the U- 20 Americans led by Coach Mikey Varas. Especially because the United States has missed the last three men’s Olympic football tournaments.
On Wednesday, the United States beat Cuba, 3-0, to win their group at the Concacaf U-20 Championship in Honduras. In the victory over the Cubans – after a 10-0 opening win over St. Kitts and Nevis (population: 53,937) and a 2-2 draw against Canada – Varas’ side produced a first almost perfect halftime.
Goals in the 2nd, 8th and 43rd minute – all scored by the local Philadelphia Union forward QuinnSullivan – secured the United States the most desirable place available to them in the knockout bracket, which begins on Saturday with a round of 16 match against Nicaragua.
Varas, named coach in November 2021 following the pandemic hiatus in national junior team programming, has had much less time than usual to prepare an U-20 U.S. team for the qualifying tournament. On the positive side of Varas, a former youth coach at FC Dallas, Sacramento and De Anza Force, the number of American teenagers with professional experience has increased with each cycle.
Paxten Aaronson scored twice against St. Kitts and Nevis and assisted in scoring twice against Cuba.
Varas, who is heading into the knockout stage, loves the way individual talent and teamwork blend together.
“We came in with the mentality that we had a clear game plan,” he said after beating the Cubans, “and the boys were connected as soon as they got off the bus. They found a good balance between being disciplined with the game plan, but also finding moments of creativity and freedom to break from the game plan. I thought the ratio tonight was really, really good.”
In its three group games, the United States have largely overtaken and dominated their three opponents.
Against Canada, the Americans lacked the precision to turn their domination into victory. Often they sounded like a talented group not quite in sync. The individual brilliance of Jack McGlynn (an incredibly well taken 23 meter shot) and Cade Cowell (clever pivot to beat the defender net before blow) avoided a surprise the Canadiens didn’t deserve.
diego moon (right) didn’t quite find his groove but was a constant threat in the opposition half.
Alexander Alvaradowho set up Sullivan’s second goal against Cuba, was asked about the game plan.
“The game plan, we worked on it, we reviewed it,” Alvarado said. “He told us, stick to the game plan, 70% of the time the game plan will work, and 30% of the time it will be us who decide what to do. As you can see from the first minutes, the game plan game worked.”
Sullivan scored his first goal after preparing for Caden Clark and Paxten Aaronsonwho helped Sullivan’s second.
“Canada wasn’t our best performance in the final third, especially from me,” Sullivan said. “But it was great to turn the tide [against Cuba]. We attacked the game plan with all our hearts. We did this to a T. We looked to enter behind them. We got behind them a few times and scored the goals early.”
Saturday’s round of 16 game should be an easy win against Nicaragua. A quarter-final victory – against Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti or Costa Rica – on Tuesday would qualify the United States for the U-20 World Cup. A victory in the semi-finals would qualify the United States for the Olympic Games.
These last two steps could require a continuation of the improvement that Varas’ team displayed between Canada and Cuba.
Pictures (Concacaf.com): Team Shooting — Standing (LR): Chris Brady, Alejandro Alvarado Jr., Niko Tsakiris, Brandan Craig, Jalen Neal. Before – Paxten Aaronson, Noah Allen, Caden Clark, Quinn Sullivan, Rokas Pukstas, Maurice Caves.