U.S. U-20 men

AP Photo/Sergei Grits

U.S. U-20s meeting potential head-on

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The Yanks are coming.

Given the past year for the U.S. men’s national team, that’s a statement which might’ve required different and perhaps excessive punctuation even a few months before the U-20 World Cup in Poland.

Maybe: The Yanks are coming?

Or even: The Yanks are coming?!?

[ RECAP: France 2-3 U.S. U-20s ]

There was a cautious optimism regarding the United States U-20 team heading into the tournament, no doubt. Tab Ramos’ men had suitcases full of swagger and a boatload of nerve honed from win after win in CONCACAF and plenty of advancement in their club careers.

Sebastian Soto and Timothy Weah had broken into the fold at Hannover 96 and Celtic (and PSG). Paxton Pomykal was having one of the best seasons of any midfielder in MLS, and a handful of players including Chris Richards and Alex Mendez took MLS Academy-developed careers to Bundesliga clubs.

Ukraine, Nigeria, and Qatar was a manageable group, not an easy one, but if the hype and hope met halfway the Baby Yanks could have a shot at placing for the first time in 20 years (when the tournament had fewer teams).

Looking at the tournament field, the mandate of the ambitious seemed simple: Don’t just advance, but win the group and probably avoid France. The oddsmakers had France as better than even money to win the tournament.

So when the Baby Yanks’ early 1-0 lead turned into a 2-1 deficit via goals before and after halftime, many would’ve been forgiven for sensing in air of inevitability. That Ramos’ men would flip the script with two goals in the final 16 minutes was wondrous.

Perhaps that amazement is a product of how much weight was put on the Baby Yanks winning Group D with the hopes of avoiding France. Maybe that added to the specter of Les Bleus, casting a longer shadow over the field.

Of course it could all fall apart for the U-20s against Ecuador, even though the Yanks will be favored in Gdynia. These are young players, more likely to be swayed by in-game emotions. Wisdom is there to be gained from these tournaments, win or lose.

Yet this makes three-straight quarterfinal berths for the U.S. who, by the way, has U-20 eligible Josh Sargent on USMNT duty.

It’s a terrific feather in the cap of Ramos, whose 2017 squad took eventual finalists Venezuela to penalty kicks in the quarters and had neither Christian Pulisic nor Weston McKennie on the roster (Tyler Adams and Sargent were there, it should be noted).

That Venezuela team, for what it’s worth, lost to England who had Lewis Cook, Dominic Solanke, Dominic Calvert-Lewin as three of a several to now have Premier League experience under their belts. 2015 winners, Serbia, defeated the U.S. in the quarters (penalty kicks) and had Sergej Milinković-Savić and Marko Grujic.

The U-20 World Cup isn’t a kingmaker of a tournament, and many stars of this month (and last) won’t dance onto FIFPro Best XI, but tell any sad sacks trying to thumb their nose at this U.S. win to take a hike.

Only eight teams will remain once Argentina and Mali finish their tangle on Tuesday, and the United States is alive. For a men’s program which failed so fantastically in World Cup and Olympic qualifying, these wins are welcome feats of strength.

And really, it could be huge given the full USMNT’s promise under Gregg Berhalter, with three key players 20 years old and promise building into the Gold Cup and, we can only hope, the 2022 World Cup.