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Under-20s play as cohesive unit to lift rare CONCACAF trophy for U.S.

Goal.com logo Goal.com 06-03-2017

American soccer fans have an underrated but overdeveloped fascination with U.S. youth national teams. Not so much with the teams themselves, but more with the persistent search for the kind of superstar who could help the U.S. senior team reach new heights.

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In recent years, fans following U.S. youth teams found more disappointment than star power, and rarely did they find teams that played well as a collective group. That changed in recent weeks, as Tab Ramos' U.S. Under-20 national team came together as a unit to win the CONCACAF U-20 Championship.

The U.S. had to survive a penalty shootout in the final against Honduras on Sunday to secure the trophy. But it was the qualities Ramos' team displayed as a cohesive squad over six matches that made this team just as encouraging for U.S. fans as any superstar-caliber individual.

It wasn't so much that this U.S. team was some unstoppable force, but more that this squad was able to come together and respond after its opening 1-0 loss to Panama. Riding a strong defense and tenacious midfield, the Americans rattled off four straight victories to book a place at the Under-20 World Cup, then outplayed Honduras in a physical final before settling matters with a 5-for-5 performance in the shootout.

That sort of poise had been exhibited by the Americans throughout the tournament. From the 1-0 victory over highly regarded Mexico, to the 2-1 win against feisty El Salvador in a match that threatened to boil over, the U.S. met every challenge as a group — and took home a shiny, new trophy as a result.

Pure elation! The U-20 #USMNT lift the @CONCACAF trophy for the very first time. pic.twitter.com/TjhZZJZTX5

— U.S. Soccer YNT (@ussoccer_ynt) March 6, 2017

To put the tournament triumph in perspective, it marked the first time the U.S. won the final of a CONCACAF U-20 final, and it was just the second undisputed CONCACAF youth championship won by the Americans in the past 25 years (the 2011 U-17 championship being the other).

Ramos deserves a considerable amount of credit for what he did with this team — a team handcuffed by a long list of unavailable players, including several attackers who could have been starters, such as Gedion Zelalem, Weston McKinnie and Nick Taitague.

Ramos made it clear before the tournament began that he wasn't sure what his attack would provide, but he did know he had the defenders to succeed. So he convinced his team it could win by pressing all over the field, and he took captain Erik Palmer-Brown and moved him into a defensive midfield role.

How did that plan work out? Palmer-Brown thrived in the unfamiliar position, winning the Golden Ball as player of the tournament, partnering with central defenders Justen Glad and Tommy Redding to form an impenetrable wall opposing attacks simply couldn't get through. Danny Acosta was also deployed in an unfamiliar position, placed at left back out of necessity, and the Real Salt Lake midfielder locked things down.

Those personnel moves and the team's improvement were a testament to Ramos and his work with this squad, which could look much different when it reconvenes in May for the U-20 World Cup in South Korea. Ramos is likely to have players like Cameron Carter-Vickers and Zelalem available, but the lessons learned in the CONCACAF tournament are still going to serve the team well since the nucleus of the qualifying squad is going to still be the foundation of the World Cup roster.

Though there were no players who looked to be the superstar American fans have been waiting for, several Americans enjoyed breakout performances the CONCACAF U-20 tournament. Here are five who stood out:

ERIK PALMER-BROWN

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The one-time Juventus transfer target had become a bit of a forgotten man outside of the Kansas City area after spending last year on loan with Porto's B team. But he showed in the tournament why scouts love him, and why the offers will continue to pour in for his services. Though he didn't play his familiar center back role, Palmer-Brown was still a dominant force, earning the tournament's Golden Ball award.

JUSTEN GLAD

It wasn't really a surprise that Glad thrived in the tournament considering how well he played for RSL last year. It can be argued no player was as consistent as he was throughout every game. He will face tough competition for a starting role at the World Cup, but he made it clear in Costa Rica he plans on keeping his job.

BROOKS LENNON

The RSL academy product and recent Liverpool reserve team player was a terror on the right wing. His tireless work up and down the flank helped the U.S. not only pressure defensively but provide a consistent outlet for his teammates. RSL fans should be excited at the possibilities, and he's probably the attacking player with the best chance of still being a starter at the World Cup.

ERYK WILLIAMSON

One of the few non-pros on the roster, Williamson played like a player who is ready to make the jump from the college ranks with his stellar play in midfield. His two-way work in midfield was instrumental in the toughest matches, and the attack definitely missed him when he was forced out of the final early. Perhaps it's no surprise the U.S. won all four matches Williamson started and played at least 45 minutes in.

TYLER ADAMS

Though he barely played in the group stage after being injured in the tournament opener, Adams showed his value in the most important matches. He was vital to the U.S. team's game plan in beating Mexico. His tenacious work pressing El Tri's playmakers and keeping the ball moving played a pivotal role in the win against Mexico, and he showed in the later rounds why the New York Red Bulls are so high on him.

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