The USA’s run at a U-20 World Cup championship came to a heartbreaking end two years ago.
In front of 10,000 spectators at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand, the U.S. lost to eventual World Cup champions Serbia 6-5 on penalties after playing to a 0-0 draw.
There were many tears shed following the disappointing defeat, but the team had a lot to be proud of. Flash forward to today, three players from that squad are back on Tab Ramos’ side that is set to kick off the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Korea Republic: defenders Erik Palmer-Brown and Cameron Carter-Vickers and midfielder Gedion Zelalem.
As the U.S. gets set to open the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup Monday vs. Ecuador (4 a.m. ET - FS1), their inclusion on Tab Ramos’ roster marks a new era, but also a passing of the torch.
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“That’s tremendous value for us, because that’s experience they can pass on to the other players,” Ramos said in a recent Facebook Live chat. “They are players that I know once Monday rolls around and we have to open up (against Ecuador), they will be calm and ready to go. And that’s something that gets passed to other players.”
During that run in New Zealand, the U.S. opened up with a 2-1 victory against Myanmar and also took down the hosting Kiwis 4-0, before falling 3-0 to Ukraine in their final group game. That defeat setup a Round of 16 clash with Colombia, where Rubio Rubin’s 58th minute strike held up a true team effort in the 1-0 victory. The talented roster from 2015 has already seen five players earn caps with the MNT: Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, Emerson Hyndman, Matt Miazga and Rubin.
Acosta, Arriola and Miazga have also featured in World Cup Qualifying matches, while U-20 returnee Carter-Vickers (pictured above) got his first taste of camp when he was included on the MNT roster for last November’s qualifiers.
“The tournament was probably one of the best moments of my life, just being with the team and everyone got along so well,” Carter-Vickers said. “Losing to Serbia was really disappointing. I felt like, if we had won that game, we would have had a really good chance to win the Semifinals and hopefully win the Final. It was really disappointing, but as a whole I think that we all felt quite proud of what we did and how we played in the tournament.
“I learned a lot. You’re playing against the best players your age around the world. Every game you play in a tournament like this is going to be tough. You have to be 100 percent ready for every game and go into every game focused and ready.”
For Palmer-Brown (pictured left above), the disappointing finish has continued to motivate and propel him to be a strong leader for the U.S. as the Sporting Kansas City product carries on his role as captain for the USA. After stepping aside from National Team duties for most of 2016 while on loan to Porto B of Portugal, Palmer-Brown rejoined the U-20 MNT in early 2017, earning the Golden Ball as the U.S. won its first CONCACAF U-20 Championship.
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“It’s tough to see it all go down in one moment like that, in penalties,” Palmer-Brown recalled on the 2015 experience. “I think all three of us gained a lot of experience just being at the last World Cup. Just to see what a big stage we’re on and to be able to actually step back and enjoy the moment. For a lot of us, this might be our only chance to play in a World Cup. It’s an amazing feeling, to represent your country in one of these tournaments and you’ve got to step back and have some fun.”
Zelalem (pictured above) started four of five matches at the 2015 World Cup, tallying an assist against New Zealand before converting one of the USA’s five successful penalties against Serbia. After going on loan from Arsenal to Rangers FC and VVV Venlo between the two World Cups, Zelalem will look for a breakout performance in Korea Republic as he works on breaking into the English side’s first team.
“It was devastating, especially because we played so well the whole tournament,” Zelalem said. “We could have easily won that game in 90 minutes. That feeling, you kind of remember it and you don’t want that feeing again. So it’s that experience that you want to give back to the new players here.
“I think it’s very clear, what we want to do here. Coach Tab and all the assistant coaches have made it very clear what we want to do and I think we are all on the same page.”