It’s the day any U-20 World Cup hopeful wanted to put off for as long as possible: the date with France.
Though Mali did its best to help the United States avoid that moment, the Baby Yanks will have to duel with the mighty French in the Round of 16 on Tuesday.
Well, okay then: Here is the chance to send a message to the world that your country’s prospects are just as bright as the reigning World Cup champions’ youngsters?
Somehow defying the favorites to win the tournament would be an incredible feather in the cap of Tab Ramos’ young men, themselves as well-regarded as any other tournament team despite a stumble in the opener against Ukraine and a nervy finale versus Qatar.
There have been several stars for the U.S., which has seen fine performances from Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Sebastian Soto (Hannover 96), and others, but there’s little doubt that the X-factor is Timothy Weah. The son of Liberian great George Weah, Timothy assisted in the opener against Ukraine and scored the lone goal against stingy Qatar.
Now the Paris Saint-Germain youth will be tested by a French team who boasts talents from the biggest names in Europe. There’s fellow PSG striker Moussa Diaby, Borussia Monchengladbach mainstay (at age 19!) Mikael Cuisance, and Borussia Dortmund’s Dan-Axel Zagadou amongst others.
Perhaps a better way to look at Tuesday’s challenge is to list some of the players France did not select for the team: Fiorentina starting goalkeeper Alban Lafont, Eintracht Frankfurt contributor Evan N’Dicka, Arsenal’s Matteo Guendouzi (Europa League duty), RB Leipzig’s Ibrahima Konate, and PSG’s Stanley Nsoki.
The 2013 champions, France won a pair of 2-0 matches before their 3-2 thriller with Mali. Bernard Diomède’s men will not bat an eye at the United States, and his 4-3-3 has an attacking bend.
Ramos has used that formation at the tournament, too, but perhaps it’s telling that he opted for a more defensive 4-3-3 in a 2-2 draw with the French in March. Chris Durkin and Alex Mendez sat in holding roles, while Frankie Amaya pushed the creative buttons. That’s an even tougher midfield with Pomykal in for Amaya, so perhaps we will see Ramos go with the same tactics he chose in the group stage despite the step up in opposition.
Granted we’re talking months, but France’s average age of 19.8 is the oldest at the tournament, seven months senior to the Yanks’ 19.1 (only Mali and Senegal are younger).