There were positives to be taken, but the United States opened the 2019 U-20 World Cup with a 2-1 loss to Ukraine, who scored the winning goal 16 minutes after the halftime break.
The U.S. dominated possession through the first half-hour, but they had little in front of goal. Ukraine, meanwhile, looked to play on the counter and did so with ferocity, using the long-ball to bypass the midfield and create chances. The opener came in this manner on 27 minutes as Dynamo Kyev youth product Heorhii Tsitaishvili delivered a ball 40 yards downfield. It was controlled by Kyev youth teammate Serhiy Buletsa who shielded off U.S. defender Sergino Dest strongly and delivered a strike first-time with his left.
United States didn’t change much after conceding first, but they eventually leveled the score with a delicious bit of build-up combination. Dest fed Timothy Weah with a ball meant to feed him through on goal, and when the delivery was just a bit wide left, Weah instead cut the ball perfectly across the face of goal to Brandon Servania for an easy tap in right on the doorstep. Paxton Pomykal and Konrad de la Fuente were both involved in the initial build-up, Weah’s feed was inch-perfect to slice between three defenders waiting to intercept the delivery, and Servania waited for his moment to pounce.
Pomykal came incredibly close to giving the US the lead moments later from an incredibly tight angle, fed through down the right by Barcelona product de la Fuente, and his whiparound shot skittered just wide of the far post. Alex Mendez forced Ukranian goalkeeper Andriy Lunin to make an unconvincing save on the stroke of halftime with a knuckler from distance that was destined for the lower right-hand corner. It was the first real action for Lunin, a Real Madrid youngster on loan at Leganes this past season.
The start to the second half was electric on both sides. Tsitaishvili struck the crossbar with an absolutely unbelievable strike from well outside the box, before Mendez forced another save from Lunin with a deep shot of his own. Ukraine went back in front in the 51st minute off a set piece with the game wide open. With an inswinging corner delivered by Buletsa, center-back Denys Popov rose high in the air to power home a strong header for a 2-1 lead.
The United States nearly had another immediate response on the counter as an electric run from de la Fuente got him past a defender down the right, but his scything cross beat all the attackers to the dangerous area. Ukraine continued to prove dangerous throughout the second half, with Tsitaishvili coming close to a deserved goal on the hour mark. The United States pushed forward with substitute Sebastian Soto on for the final half-hour, but Ukraine’s positioning was stout and their tackling was superb. They nearly put the game away at the death with a header by Vladyslav Supriaha forcing a big save by Brady Scott, with the final whistle right after.
With the loss, the United States has Group D games against Nigeria and Qatar remaining as they search for a spot in the knockouts. Winning the group is advisable, given the group winner will draw a third-placed team in the first knockout game while the second-place finisher draws the winner of Group E – likely to be tournament-favorite France. Still, advancement to the knockout stage is first and foremost for the United States, which cannot lose another game and expect to move on.