US, Argentina finish perfect in group rounds ahead of Under-20 World Cup knockout stage
Cade Cowell of the United States, center, celebrates with his teammates after scoring his side's first goal during a FIFA U-20 World Cup Group B soccer match against Slovakia at the San Juan stadium in San Juan, Argentina, Friday, May 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — The United States completed a perfect group stage at the Under-20 World Cup for the first time.

The Americans beat Slovakia 2-0 in San Juan on Friday to top Group B, with Cade Cowell scoring before halftime from a counterattack and Niko Tsakiris adding the second in injury time. Ecuador secured second spot in the group with a 9-0 win over Fiji.

The US, which had already secured a place in the knockout stages, continued its dominant roll to finish the preliminaries with three wins from three games, and no goals conceded. It’s the first time in 17 appearances at the Under-20 World Cup that the US team has finished with a 3-0-0 record in the group stage.

US defender Brandan Craig has played all 270 minutes so far in the tournament and says team chemistry has been an important factor.

“It’s really special to not concede a goal and we take real pride in that,” Craig said. “I’m really proud of this group — (now) knockouts to come.”

The US team will play Tuesday against the third-place team from either group A, C or D.

“It’s win or go home,” Craig said of the playoffs. “So we’re going to do anything we can to just win. It doesn’t need to be pretty.

“Obviously, clean sheets come first. If we keep a clean sheet, the more likely we’re going to win.”

Slovakia could still advance as one of the four best third-place teams.

Ecuador led Fiji 4-0 by halftime, including a brace by Justin Cuero. Alan Minda also scored twice in the second half, and Cristhoper Zambrano scored both of his in injury time.

Ecuador’s next rival will be the runner-up of Group F, which could be Gambia, South Korea or Honduras.

Argentina beat New Zealand 5-0 in San Juan to record its third victory and finish atop Group A. Ignacio Maestro Puch, Gino Infantino and Luka Romero netted before the break. Brian Aguirre scored from the spot and Alejo Veliz headed in the last goal in the second half.

New Zealand, with four points, still has a chance of advancing as one of the best third-placed teams.

Argentina, which only got a spot in the tournament as host after Indonesia was stripped of the rights in late March, will next play one of the third-place finishers in Groups C, D or E on Wednesday.

Asian champion Uzbekistan finished second in the group and advanced after a 2-0 win against Guatemala in Santiago del Estero. Its next opponent will be the runner-up of Group C on Tuesday.

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