Soccer at three in the morning can always be a bit of a challenge. Being able to put together cogent thoughts and frame an argument requires a certain level of madness, a strong coffee and an uncomfortable chair to avoid falling asleep mid-match. But there is some joy especially when a World Cup is involved.
Last Friday the 2015 U-20 World Cup kicked off in New Zealand with excitement in the island nation and curiosity all across the globe. Although soccer supporters have known about youth-level World Cups for years (many of whom probably bragged that they played with a youth level national team when courting a date at the pub) it has never really received that much exposure until this year.
With every match being broadcast or streamed online, U.S. Youth soccer has perhaps never been so widely consumed and scrutinised.
So what prompts U.S. Soccer supporters to wake up at such ungodly hours to watch a youth tournament? Curiosity. No longer just interested in the senior team soccer supporters seem to be looking at the youth levels for who might be next.
The player that everyone, both here in the United States and in Europe, seems to be interested in is Gedion Zelalem. The Arsenal youth academy player’s services were sought after by the United States, Germany, and Ethiopia before settling with the USA.
He only just started with the USA shortly before the World Cup, a result of making the switch from Germany (his country of birth) to the United States (where he spent the formative years of his life). Zelalem is held in high regards with Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klinsmann and has shown in flashes at this World Cup the pace and ingenuity that made him such a prized target.
Beyond Zelalem, there are some intriguing international-based players that have caught American supporters attention during this World Cup. Players like Maki Tall (Lille,) Emerson Hyndman (Fulham,) Rubio Rubin (FC Utrecht,) and Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham) have all come out of nowhere and become immediate prospects for U.S. Soccer .
They are known quantities people whose names are now recognisable and probably would have been unknown a few years back.
Of course it also helps that players from Major League Soccer are actually getting minutes as well. USMNT midfielder Kellyn Acosta might have been a revelation for some on Monday morning for his defensive efforts against New Zealand. But for FC Dallas supporters he has been integral to their rise in the Western Conference standings for two years.
The same could be said for Bradford Jamieson IV who scored against New Zealand and currently plays for the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Now the question for this U.S. under-20 team is if this squad can turn the page and make an impact at this World Cup. Thus far the results have been mixed. After getting behind early against Myanmar, Hyndman and Tall would lift the USA over 2-1 in the opening match of Group A.
A masterful performance against New Zealand allowed the U.S. to qualify for the knockout stage, but a dreadful 3-0 loss to Ukraine destroyed all hopes of winning Group A. It is always better to advance than be eliminated but finishing first would have put the rest of the teams in the tournament on notice.
The good news for the United States is that they are in the knockout stage. Considering that they have not been in this position since 2007, the year where Freddy Adu and Michael Bradley beat Brazil to make it to the quarter finals, this tournament should be seen in a positive light. Argentina and Mexico, who have both been eliminated from the competition would certainly like to be in the U.S.A.’s position.
But there is a drawback with this newfound excitement surrounding this team: expectations. No longer confined to the backpages of soccer news in the United States the spotlight is shining brightly on kids who might not be ready. U.S. Soccer supporters desperately want to win an international competition that does not have CONCACAF in it.
While the support can be very good, it can sometimes be misguided. Not every 18, 19-year-old kid can carry the load of being the hope of U.S. Soccer. The challenge for the United States, maybe moreso than any other country in the world, is to find that talent and bring them up in an atmosphere that does not allow them to be complacent.
On Wednesday morning, the U.S. U-20’s will continue their 2015 World Cup campaign against Colombia. Against a very difficult South American side who have their own ambitions of conquering the footballing world, it should be an excellent match for those that can stomach the early morning.
Even if the United States does not win, the experience for both the players involved and the supporters watching should be seen as a positive sign for U.S. Soccer. Sometimes a three coffee morning is worth it.