Fans of the beautiful game in the United States are in store for a soccer extravaganza this coming weekend.
The Super Bowl of the sport takes place in the afternoon as Real Madrid and Juventus battle for the UEFA Champions League crown in Cardiff, Wales. And there is, of course, another loaded slate of MLS action that begins the night before with Portland hosting San Jose.
But there’s also an added treat of international action. First off, the senior USMNT kicks off their preparation for two crucial World Cup qualifiers with a friendly against Venezuela at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. Kickoff is set for 10 PM ET.
Roughly two hours after that match concludes, the two nations’ under-20 squads clash in Jeonju, South Korea with a spot in the FIFA U-20 World Cup semifinals on the line. Fans on the East Coast might need a caffeinated beverage for that one. Proceedings begin at 2 AM ET.
What are some of the things to keep an eye on in both matches? Which players will most likely play the most prominent roles on the field? And what factors will ultimately lead to victory for the Stars and Stripes?
Previewing the Weekend’s USA-Venezuela Doubleheader
A World Cup Qualifying Tuneup in Preparation for a Summit Attempt
USMNT boss Bruce Arena faces a unique challenge during this particular international window. After all, it culminates with a battle against regional rival Mexico at vaunted Estadio Azteca next Sunday. Preparing the team for that game always carries with it one primary factor everyone loves to talk about: altitude.
Saturday night’s game against Venezuela is the conclusion to the first leg of that preparation. It mirrors how to effectively summit a mountain. Acclimatize at a lower elevation before making a push for the summit. Sandy, UT, at 4,450 feet above sea level, certainly functions as an ideal locale in that regard with Mexico City at over 7,000 feet.
Optimizing players’ cardiovascular fitness levels for thin air is one thing. Solidifying a solid tactical game plan with the right personnel to implement it is another. And even that is a significant issue Arena needs to address starting with Saturday’s matchup with La Vinotinto.
Part of it revolves around the fact that Arena will be getting his first look at a few key players. DeAndre Yedlin, Fabian Johnson and Bobby Wood are all in USMNT camp for the first time since Arena took over as manager. All three missed the March qualifiers due to injury.
Yedlin and Johnson are surefire starters. The former emerged as one of the top fullbacks in England’s second tier and helped lead Newcastle to first place in the league and a return to the EPL. And with Jorge Villafaña on the opposite end of the back line, Johnson can finally be deployed as more of an attacking winger. That’s where he normally operates on the field in the Bundesliga for Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Wood is more of a question mark. The 24-year-old forward finished his club season in less than stellar form. Though his Hamburg team avoided relegation, Wood failed to score in their final nine matches. It represents a quandary for the USMNT attack as Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris have a combined two goals in their last 15 starts in MLS play.
Dempsey may have a chance to reach a historic milestone should he play on Saturday. If he scores one goal, he’ll tie Landon Donovan for first place on the USMNT’s all-time scoring list. He knocked in four in the last two qualifiers, including a hat trick against Honduras. Whatever happens, the match represents a first step towards getting a favorable result at the highest point of the CONCACAF mountain that is Azteca.
The USA U-20s: Playing for History
Tab Ramos brought to South Korea a squad full of immensely promising young American soccer prospects. Expectations were high that this team could build upon their performance in 2015 when they fell to eventual champion Serbia via penalties in the quarterfinals. Well, here they are again at that stage of the tournament.
Things didn’t get off to the best of starts. In their opening match against Ecuador, the US conceded two goals seven minutes in and looked to be in full blown panic mode. But it took them less than a half an hour to right the ship and commence a fightback. At the forefront of it all was Josh Sargent.
The 17-year-old, who netted five goals at the CONCACAF U-17 championship, scored in the 36th and 54th minute to tie things up. Though Ecuador retook the lead ten minutes later, Sargent’s teammate Luca de la Torre equalized in the final minute of stoppage time. It helped the US escape with a draw and create the momentum that got them to where they currently are.
The Red, White and Blue defeated Senegal and drew Saudi Arabia in their final two preliminary round games to win Group F. But heading into their round of 16 tie with New Zealand, the side found themselves shorthanded defensively. Cameron Carter-Vickers, Aaron Herrera and Derrick Jones were unavailable due to red card suspension or yellow card accumulation.
It didn’t matter. RSL center back Justen Glad slotted comfortably into Herrera’s right back role. Tommy Redding of Orlando City returned to the starting XI after a shaky performance in the opener. And, more importantly, the US laid six on the Kiwis while conceding none themselves.
Not surprisingly, Sargent featured as one of the goal-scorers in the 6-0 rout. He comes into Sunday’s showdown in the thick of the tournament’s golden boot conversation. His four goals is tied for the lead with two other players, including Venezuela’s Sergio Córdova. The two young talents will look to add to their respective hauls as a means towards propelling their team to the final four.
Both sides are both on the verge of history. Venezuela have never reached the U-20 World Cup semis, while the Yanks did so just once in 1989. That US squad included players such as Kasey Keller, Mike Burns, Chris Henderson and Troy Dayak. Those four were part of a generation that laid the foundation for US Soccer becoming the regional powerhouse it is today.
The next step for the sport’s growth is for the US to become a world soccer power. With this current crop of youngsters entrenched in MLS and European academies or even making contributions at an early age with the first team, the potential is certainly there. A return to the U-20 semifinals after nearly 30 years may indeed herald American soccer’s global coming of age.