Uruguay will be toughest test yet for USA at U20 World Cup

Uruguay have never won the Under-20 World Cup. But few countries take the tournament as seriously — or have derived more benefit from it. Indeed, Uruguay’s 21st century reemergence has a great deal to do with the work they put in at this level.

When he took over for his second spell in charge of the senior national side at the end of 2005, Oscar Washington Tabarez had a clear diagnosis of what was necessary. In a context of globalised football, it was not possible for domestic Uruguayan football to compete. The best players would inevitably be transferred at a young age. And so the future of the national team lay in youth development work — in identifying talented youngsters with the characteristics — speed of thought, of movement and of technical execution — to thrive in the contemporary game, to catch them early and ensure that they grew up having a firm identification with the sky blue shirt.

Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

For more than a decade and a half, this work has been carried out with great success — from Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani through to Federico Valverde, Rodrigo Bentancur and Darwin Nunez, Uruguay have continually been able to refresh their senior side with graduates from the U20 ranks.

And the current generation are sure to maintain this tradition. As with all age limit football, the development of talent is more important than the winning of titles. But those four stars above their crest — Olympic gold medals of 1924 and 1928, World Cup wins of 1930 and 1950 — have left a legacy of a proud footballing nation that likes to aim high.

The team that faces the United States in Sunday’s quarterfinal is already dreaming of going all the way. The U.S. have already faced South American opposition in this competition. They kicked off the tournament with a stoppage time winner against Ecuador. This is a different challenge. The Ecuador side was vastly changed from the one that played in qualification, and perhaps inevitably needed a couple of games to jell.

Uruguay, meanwhile, are very similar to the team which back in February were just a few minutes away from being crowned South American champions. But the good news for the U.S. is that Uruguay are probably a little bit weaker than they were back in February. First, Real Madrid decided not to release centre forward Alvaro Rodriguez for this tournament in Argentina. This has proved a considerable loss. The strapping left-footed striker gave them an effective attacking platform. His replacement Andres Ferrari has picked up an injury, but in any case his all-round game is not as strong.

This makes the absence of Luciano Rodriguez all the more vexing. After spending last year in the Uruguayan second division, Luciano was the breakout star of the South American qualifying tournament. He has struggled to find the same form at this competition. There were signs that he might be recapturing in a tough win over Gambia on Thursday. But shortly before half time he was controversially sent off after he was cynically held back as he set on a dangerous run. In a gesture that was part frustration, part an attempt to wriggle free he raised an arm, Luciano was given a red card for elbowing his opponent. It was very harsh — and effectively it meant that Gambia benefited from an atrocious piece of foul play — but it means that Uruguay go into the quarterfinal without their most potent attacking weapon.

That said, plenty of talent remains. The calm and classy Sebastian Boselli is one of the centre-backs of the tournament. Right-back Mateo Ponte is full of strong attacking runs. Captain and midfield general Fabricio Diaz has not been at his best here — although, ominously for the U.S., he played his best game so far against Gambia. Closing Diaz down and preventing him from running the game with his excellent range of passing will be a key task for the young Americans on Sunday.

Diaz will look to plant his through balls for the surging runs of Ponte, or to the dancing feet of dangerous little playmaker Franco Gonzalez. Gonzalez will run at the Americans’ back line, as will Matias Abaldo, fitness allowing. A winger, Abaldo was enjoying a fine tournament until he was injured on Sunday against Tunisia, a victim of the poor pitches that have plagued this competition. Efforts to get him fit in time will surely intensify now that Luciano has been ruled out.

Left footed striker or attacking midfielder Anderson Duarte has endured mixed fortunes, but did manage to score a magnificent winner against Gambia. And there could be more to come from striker Nicolas Siri, used as a late substitute and gradually playing his way into the competition.

Sunday’s match is going to be much harder than the U.S.’s round-of-16 win against New Zealand. This is the moment that the quality of the opposition ramps up, and so does the pressure. The North Americans have had an extra day’s rest and an easier route to the quarterfinal. The South Americans have the virtues to make this a match to remember.