The 2017 U-20 Men's World Cup has reached its knockout rounds. Eight of the 24 qualifiers are out, the rest are paired in the round of 16 that kicks off on May 30.
A quick look at the match-ups and players to watch out for, with a focus on what might be of interest to New York Red Bulls fans.
Japan vs Venezuela - 4:00 am, Eastern; Tuesday, May 30
A match that might be worth the attention of USMNT fans: the winner of this game will be the USA's quarterfinal opponent, if it can get past New Zealand in the round of 16.
Japan is the reigning 2016 AFC U-19 champion: the top team out of Asia's qualifying tournament for this World Cup. It is in the round of 16 as the third-best team out of Group D, arguably the toughest group at this competition. Japan has yet to score first in a game in this World Cup: it fell behind to South Africa early, and came back to win in the second half; it had to fight back from two goals down against Italy to secure a 2-2 draw; it didn't score at all against Uruguay in a 2-0 loss. So while Japan is clearly capable of playing its way back into a game, there is also the sense that it perhaps needs the wake-up call of conceding a goal or two to get itself going.
Venezuela finished third at the 2017 South American Championship, but was the only team to beat CONMEBOL U-20 champion Uruguay in qualifying for this tournament. The team finished top of Group B, beating Germany, Mexico and Vanuatu by a combined score of 10-0 (seven of those were against Vanuatu). Group B was not the most challenging in the tournament - neither Mexico nor Germany look to have been in great form since arriving in Korea - so it is not unreasonable to question whether Venezuela really is one of the best teams at this World Cup (as implied by its group stage record) or has merely benefited from playing some lackluster opponents.
Players to watch:
Won the 2016 AFC U-19 Championship with Japan and was MVP of that tournament. Currently his team's top scorer in this competition, with three goals in the group stage. The 18-year-old Doan is attached to Gamba Osaka, but he will surely have soccer options outside Japan if he wants them.
Manchester City signed Venezuela U-20 midfielder Yangel Herrera and loaned him out to New York City FC in MLS this year, so he is perhaps the Venezuelan squad's best-known player in the USA. But Sergio Cordova is currently this World Cup's top scorer - with four goals during the group stage - and is representative of a lively and effective attacking unit that has been important to Venezuela's success so far in this tournament.
South Korea vs Portugal - 7:00 am, Eastern; Tuesday, May 30, 2017
The winner of this match-up will play Uruguay or Saudi Arabia in the quarterfinals.
Home team South Korea finished second in Group A - the so-called Group of Death that ultimately claimed Argentina and Guinea as its victims. The Koreans have drawn large, supportive crowds to their group stage games and that can be expected to continue for as long as they remain in this tournament. In the group stage, they qualified with a game to spare after wins over Guinea and Argentina. They lost, 1-0, to England in their Group B finale, but key players were rested for that game and Korea was not, perhaps, going all-out to win. The team will be going all out to win this one.
Portugal has been disappointing so far in this World Cup. The team lost only once at the 2016 UEFA European U-19 Championship - to champion France. Portugal's squad contains several players from Benfica's well-regarded youth system, and the Benfica squad that went to the final of the 2016-17 UEFA Youth League. But it struggled to get out of Group C at this tournament: a penalty helped it secure a draw against a not-great Costa Rica (that also needed a penalty to equalize) and it beat Iran in its concluding group-stage game thanks to a late own-goal. More was expected from this team than a somewhat lackluster series of opening matches. Subdued form makes Portugal second-favorite in this game, but the perception remains that the squad can match any in the tournament for talent, so it should be regarded as having a chance against any opponent at this World Cup.
Players to watch:
Barcelona-based Seung-woo's talent is no secret, but this tournament is getting word about the 19-year-old out to a wider audience. He has scored twice for South Korea in the group stage, and has strong incentive to lead his team deep into the competition: the final will be held in Suwon, his hometown.
Portugal's star man at the 2016 UEFA European U-17 Championship, where we was top scorer and tournament MVP. And he scored for Benfica in the 2016-17 UEFA Youth League final. The 18-year-old is a game-changing talent who can provide the spark Portugal seems to have been missing so far at this World Cup.
Uruguay vs Saudi Arabia - 4:00 am, Eastern; Wednesday, May 31, 2017
South Korea or Portugal will be waiting in the quarterfinals for the winner of this one.
The top team out of South American qualifying ought to be regarded as one of the tournament favorites. Uruguay lived up to that billing in the group stage, winning Group D without conceding a goal. It didn't score too many - only three - but since it didn't concede, that wasn't really an issue. Uruguay will be seen as the favorite against any other team in this World Cup except France - which makes it the favorite to advance to the final from its half of the knockout round draw, since France is on the other side of the bracket.
Group F was close and competitive and Saudi Arabia played well in its three games. But the second-best team out of Asian qualifying and third-placed team from Group F is very much the underdog in this match. It will be a significant upset if Saudi Arabia knocks Uruguay out of this World Cup. But the team will point to its victory over Ecuador in the group stage as evidence of the fact that it can hold its own against South American opposition.
Players to watch:
When Carlos Tevez moved from Juventus to Boca Juniors, the Italian club picked up options on several of the Argentine club's prospects, including Betancur. He's on his way to Juve this summer after that option was exercised in April.
The Saudi 'keeper back-stopped his team to victory over Ecuador in the group stage. One suspects Saudi Arabia will need a similarly outstanding performance from Albukhari if it is to get by Uruguay.
Costa Rica vs England - 7:00 am, Eastern; Wednesday, May 31, 2017
The winner of this game will play Mexico or Senegal in the quarterfinals.
Costa Rica did not look great in the CONCACAF U-20 Championship earlier this year, nor did the team appear drastically improved in the group stage of this tournament. Still, it has conceded only two goals at this World Cup, and beat Group C winner Zambia to secure a place in the round of 16.
England also has a strong defense to thank for its place in the knockout rounds. The team allowed just one goal in the group stage, and it was scored in slapstick fashion by one of its own players. Prior to this tournament, England's U-20s hadn't won a game at the U-20 World Cup since 1997. The team is now targeting its first appearance beyond the second round of the tournament since 1993.
Players to watch:
One of the more active and effective 'keepers in the tourhament to date, Costa Rica will likely need another big performance from Pineda if it is to make the quarterfinals.
A highly-rated goal-scorer thought to be on his way out of Chelsea this summer. RB Leipzig is allegedly one of several clubs interested in Solanke, who will be an even hotter prospect if he has a big U-20 World Cup.
Zambia vs Germany - 7:00 am, Eastern, Wednesday, May 31
The winner of this match will play France or Italy in the quarterfinals.
Zambia spoiled its reputation slightly by losing, 1-0, to Costa Rica in its final group stage game. But it put in another eye-catching attacking performance in that game, albeit without finding the net. The AFCON U-20 champion plays a reliably positive game and was already guaranteed a place in the knockout rounds when it lost to Los Ticos.
Germany was a lucky-loser qualifier out of the 2016 UEFA European U-19 Championship, and is in the round of 16 as one of the top four third-placed teams from the group stage. The team has not looked any more like a challenger for this World Cup than it did for the European title last year. Still, if its aim was to peak in the last week of this U-20 cycle, it has at least given itself the chance to do so.
Players to watch:
MVP of the 2017 AFCON U-20 tournament, and the super-sub who helped RB Salzburg to the 2016-17 UEFA Youth League, there aren't many players having a better year at the elite level of youth soccer than Patson Daka. Fashion Sakala has been Zambia's most eye-catching player in the group stage of this tournament, but this is a guide for New York Red Bulls fans, and it would be negligent to overlook one of the highest-profile prospects in the RB Global Soccer system.
The only RB Leipzig prospect in the Germay U-20 squad, midfielder Fechner will have his work cut out for him containing Zambia's tendency to play quick, direct, counter-attacking soccer that often bypasses the middle of the field entirely.
Mexico vs Senegal - 3:30 am, Eastern, Thursday, June 1
The winner of this match will play England or Costa Rica in the quarterfinals.
Traditionally, Mexico is the standout team in CONCACAF at the Men's U-20 level (and U-17s, for that matter). But this year, it didn't even make the final of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship. That could be seen as merely unfortunate - El Tri lost one game in the tournament, and that was just 1-0 to the USA - but Mexico hasn't done a lot at this World Cup to shake the perception that this might be a down year for its national U-20 program. The team was about a minute away from being held to a draw by Vanuatu in its group-stage opener, and failed to score against either Germany or Venezuela. It was the runner-up in Group B mostly because Germany's form was no better and it too struggled to subdue Vanuatu.
Senegal made its U-20 World Cup debut at the 2015 tournament, making the semifinals after a runner-up finish at the 2015 AFCON U-20s. This year, Senegal is back at the U-20 World Cup as the reigning AFCON U-20 runner-up - and it proved last time out that if it can get to the knockout rounds, it can make a run in the tournament. Much like Mexico, Senegal hasn't scored since its opening game of this World Cup, so this match-up seems mostly about which of these teams can shake itself back into goal-scoring form quickest.
Players to watch:
Mexico needs goals and Cisneros was the top-scorer at the 2017 U-20 CONCACAF Championship, so one would expect El Tri to look to him first for the scoring boost it requires.
Scored Senegal's opening goal of this World Cup and it remains a highlight of the tournament.
France vs Italy - 7:00 am, Eastern; Thursday, June 1
The winner of this game plays Zambia or Germany in the quarterfinals.
France is considered the favorite to win this World Cup, but that tag is largely no more than a function of the fact that it won the 2016 UEFA European U-19 Championship. If the team gets to the final of this tournament, however, its status as favorite will be well earned. If all the knockout round games go the way of the presumptive favorites (and that is not guaranteed), France will have reached the title match by knocking off the AFCON champion (Zambia) in the quarterfinals and the only team it lost to at the U-19 Euros, England, in the semifinals. And first it must play a re-match of the U-19 Euros final. France beat Italy, 4-0, last year to win its European title, so this game will be an interesting test of how far both squads have come since. The other reason France is considered favorite to win this World Cup is that its roster has only got more experienced since the U-19 European Championship final, but that is true for Italy's players too.
If one had to pick the finalists of this World Cup now, Uruguay and France would be the obvious choices. Italy has the misfortune of having to play them both at this tournament. The Italians' group stage game against Uruguay didn't go too well - they lost, 1-0. But if Italy can avenge its loss to France in the U-19 Euros final, then maybe it can with through to the final and settle its score with Uruguay too (if the Uruguayans get that far).
Players to watch:
He might not start or even get on the field, but if there's any sign of Saint-Maximin getting into a game, he's worth watching. In his only appearance at this World Cup to date, he scored two of the more memorable goals of the tournament, and it would be nice to see him get the chance to score a few more.
The 20-year-old was snapped up by Juventus in January. He is Italy's leading scorer in this World Cup so far (with two goals). He'll have a lot of eyes on him if he can lead Italy past France in the round of 16.
New Zealand vs USA - 7:00 am, Eastern; Thursday, June 1
The winner of this game plays Venezuela or Japan in the quarterfinals.
The USA won one of the more closely-contested groups in this tournament - add that to the fact this team is also the reigning CONCACAF U-20 champion, and beat Mexico on the way to that title, and it starts to look like this group of young Americans might have enough to match the previous best performance by a US U-20 squad in the competition: 1989's run to the semifinals. But first the team must get to the quarterfinals, a task complicated by a string of suspensions carried over from its last group stage game. Cameron Carter-Vickers didn't start the USA"s opening game of the tournament, and that 3-3 draw with Ecuador is the closest the team has come to losing a match so far at this World Cup. Carter-Vickers was red-carded against Saudi Arabia and will miss this game as a consequence. Also out are Aaron Herrera and Derrick Jones for yellow-card accumulation. Herrera is the starting right-back in the injury-enforced absence of Marlon Fossey, and midfielder Jones stepped into the starting lineup when Gedion Zelalem's tournament was ended in the USA's first game of the group stage. So the USA's squad depth will be severely tested in the round of 16.
New Zealand, however, is also bringing a weakened team to the knockout rounds. The senior All Whites are in this year's Confederations Cup, and U-20 captain Clayton Lewis has been snatched from the World Cup in Korea to help his men's national team's preparations for its tournament in Russia. He is joined by the U-20s' starting right-back, Dan Ingham, forcing head coach Darren Bazeley to shuffle his starting lineup even more.
Players to watch:
The breakout star of the USA's tournament has been Josh Sargent: the captain of the current US U-17 squad wasn't expected to be playing for the U-20s this year, but he has celebrated his call-up with three goals in three games. But RBNY Academy product and current first-teamer for the Red Bulls, Adams, has also advanced his reputation considerably with his performances in Korea. Building on a strong CONCACAF U-20 Championship, Adams is one of the more important players to the USA's hopes of finishing this U-20 cycle on a high.
He'll be playing for Vancouver Whitecaps 2 in USL when his World Cup is over, which may have been disappointing news to those scouts who noticed him dismantle Honduras in the group stage. If he can repeat that performance against the USA, the All Whites might be staying in Korea a little longer than expected.