Perhaps the best thing about Wednesday’s U20 World Cup draw was that Diego Maradona was one of the presenters, yanking those ping pong balls out of a serving dish to toss entire nations into a cauldron with one another. Diego Maradona In South Korea sounds like some sort of 30 for 30 nobody would really want to watch.
And the best part wasn’t even that Maradona unwittingly trolled the English, again, by drawing Argentina and England into the same group. It was this moment with some local South Koreans, when Maradona recreated the Hand of God because… Maradona.
For our purposes, where those magic balls placed the U.S., which won the CONCACAF tournament in Costa Rica two weeks ago, was of most interest. And it certainly could’ve been worse, but it most definitely could’ve been better.
Here’s the thing about this draw. It doesn’t look bad. And in some ways it isn’t. The U.S. avoided European teams altogether thanks largely to its positioning in Pot 1, a byproduct of the CONCACAF title. Mexico, meanwhile, got Germany. The U.S. also sidestepped the two doomsday teams in Pot 2 (Argentina) and Pot 3 (Italy), so you can be sure U.S. coach Tab Ramos is genuflecting today. It could’ve been much worse.
But this group is perhaps a bit more challenging than it might otherwise appear. Follow me down the foxhole.
The U.S. might’ve avoided calamity in Pots 2 and 3, but it stepped on a landmine in Pot 4. Ecuador was the heavy hitter there, and the South American side should provide some headaches in May. Ecuador hosted the CONMEBOL qualifying tournament to get here, so their geographical degree of difficulty wasn’t quite as high, but they ripped off a string of mighty impressive wins to get here.
The Ecuadorians won a group (on goal differential, mind you) featuring Brazil and Colombia, and they beat the latter 4-3 in extra time after going down 2-0 in the first half. They then proceeded to reel off tone-setting 3-0 wins in the final stage against Argentina and Colombia before losing to eventual champ Uruguay and finishing second in the final grouping. We don’t quite know yet what the largely domestic-based roster will look like in May, but it’s good enough to blow Argentina out of the Rio de la Plata. So. Yeah.
Senegal is the other lion hiding in tall grass. The AFCON U20 tournament is a blender, and a few African nations have had little trouble gate-crashing this tournament and putting together impressive knockout runs. Senegal finished fourth (!) at this tournament in 2015, just behind third-placed Mali after a thrilling all-Africa third-place game in which the teams combined to score all four goals inside the final half hour. In 2013, Ghana finished third, and they won the entire tournament in 2009. And Nigeria, which has admittedly had far more success internationally on the U17 level, always seems to be hovering around menacingly in the background.
The tricky thing about taking past U20 World Cup results and extrapolating those out, even two years later, is that these rosters pretty much turn over in their entirety from one tournament to the next. So saying Senegal finished fourth in 2015 is more an admission of their development apparatus than it is the roster we’ll see. And it’s a good system, if you haven’t been paying close attention to African U20 affairs of late. The 2015 World Cup team now has eight players in Europe, most of them in France.
The 2017 team isn’t quite there yet, but most of the movement at lesser-known soccer nations tends to come after the tournament’s conclusion. Matt Miazga, for instance, shot his own star into orbit with the help of this tournament in 2015 while playing for the Red Bulls. Senegal made an impressive run through the AFCON to the final, where they fell in a 2-0 match against Zambia just last week.
About that match. This is a bit of a sidetrack, but it’s one of those Only-In-AFCON moments too rich not to share. In that final, played on March 12, Senegal’s Ibrahima Ndiaye, the team’s best scoring threat, appeared to take something out of his sock and throw it into Zambia’s goal in the run-up to a free kick. The Zambians, who scrambled to remove the object, claimed Ndiaye was attempting to use some sort of witchcraft to influence the match.
I mean, this headline.
So anyway, the Senegalese team the U.S. is about to see may not wield the magics of Voldemort’s arcane dark arts, but they’re pretty good. Good enough to reach successive AFCON U20 finals and certainly good enough to beat the U.S. on their day. Vigilance, etc.
The Saudi Arabians certainly look like the weak link of the four, but they opened some eyes in qualifying by dropping South Korea, which played in the AFC tournament but didn’t need to qualify, 2-1 in the group phase. They came within a breath of winning the whole tournament after knockout wins over Iraq and Iran (the latter in a 6-5 barnburner), and ultimately lost to Japan in penalties in the finale.
Each of these three matches provide some level of undercover difficulty for the Americans, but this is a winnable group all things considered. The base expectation, once again, should include progressing out of the group for just the second time in the last five U20 World Cups.