FIFA U-20 World Cup Betting Preview
International youth soccer tournaments are among the most enjoyable aspects of betting. Unlike the senior national teams, these kids rarely get the chance to play together. Most of the teams are comprised of a combination of players from different domestic teams all over the world. The countries that can afford to put the resources in youth soccer will schedule multiple friendlies (glorified scrimmages) to hopefully find some cohesiveness prior to the start of the World Cup. Yet, the less fortunate countries are piecing together teams and players the best they can and end up using 16- and 17-year-old kids when they have to. As the tournament goes forward we learn huge amounts of information half by half, especially defensively. While scorers are scorers, for the most part, defenses benefit by experience in playing together.
The under 20 World Cup just concluded the group stage. Let’s evaluate what we have learned so far, group by group. Keep in mind 16 of the 24 teams make the knockout stage, so some teams are not very good but move on anyway. The top two teams in the group advance, while only 4 third place teams will continue based on a formula. We won’t spend much time on those who don’t have a chance.
Senegal’s defense dominated this group. They allowed zero goals and only 4 SOG (shots on goal). They are big and athletic and play very well together. They shut down a highly touted Colombia team, destroyed Tahiti (everyone in the group did) and played a conservative, deliberate draw against host Poland. This was one of the most impressive teams and are among a handful with a chance to win the trophy.
Colombia started the group with a nice 2-0 win over host Poland. But they struggled with the size and athleticism of Senegal in a 2-0 loss as they only managed 2 SOG. Matchups are key in sports, and Colombia is a good example as they could benefit by a good draw in the knockout stage.
Poland is lucky to be at home and they took advantage of an easy 5-0 win against lowly Tahiti to advance. They are one and done.
Italy didn’t lose a match. They struggled with shots on goal at a tally of 12-18 (-6). YUCK. They played really well in the competitive youth championships in Europe last summer but lost the services of some of their best players. A goal differential of +2 with a SOG count of -6 is a glaring problem. Especially considering the competition. I’ll pass anyone allowing 6 SOG per match.
Japan struggled in the Asian championships but have played surprisingly well in Poland. They drew with Ecuador and Italy while crushing Mexico 3-0. They allowed 4 SOG per match. Nothing spectacular, but pretty organized. They would like to avoid big, athletic teams as long as they can. Defending set pieces against size is difficult for them. As Michael Ballack said during a World Cup match, “Japan needs bigger players but they don’t have any.”
Ecuador won their first South American championship and were very confident coming in as most players participated in the u20 of 2017. They made some huge mistakes that cost them in key moments, allowing Japan to score to tie and missing a penalty kick against Italy. This team hasn’t proven they can handle the pressure in big moments. Prefer others.
Uruguay was outstanding. They held a scary Norwegian offense to 3 SOG and 1 goal in a 3-1 win. Then dismantled surprise team New Zealand 2-0. Most impressive was 6-0 SOG tally against the experienced Kiwi team. This is a dangerous team with the offense performing this well and could win the title with the right draw.
New Zealand impressed in a 5-0 rout of Honduras and a 2-0 win against Norway. But 0-6 SOG in a 0-2 loss to Uruguay made them look average. One game is the most I can see them winning, if that.
Strange group, still not sure what to make of the three teams advancing, as Ukraine won the group but were -3 SOG vs fellow playoff teams USA and Nigeria (3-2 goals). Historically, this has been a recipe for disaster in the knockout rounds.
United States played well at times in their opening match winning the SOG 5-3 while making enough mistakes to give away the match in a 1-2 loss to Ukraine. The second match was the Sebastian Soto show as he scored both goals in a 2-0 win over traditional u20 power Nigeria. The key will be Tim Weah, who is arguably the United States most talented young player. His dad, George Weah, is the current president of Liberia and is the only African player to ever win the Ballon d’Or and be named FIFA player of the year. The biggest issue for the U.S. is the losses going into the knockout stage as key midfielders Chris Durkin and Alex Mendez will miss the first match due to yellow card accumulations. Not good.
Nigeria is one of the most successful u20 teams historically. The previous four World Cups produced seven wins and only two losses with an average score of around 3-1. This year against both quality teams, Nigeria lost by a combined score of 1-3. However, shots on goal were in Nigeria’s favor at a combined 9-5. Bad luck has been the rule for Nigeria. With a good draw in the first round Nigeria could surprise, as teams who are ahead on SOG but lose goal differential are traditionally good bets.
France was highly regarded after an impressive Euro last summer. The TV announcers along with French coach Bernard Diomede couldn’t have been more critical of France’s first two matches. I’m not sure what they missed, a saw a dominant effort producing a combined 4-0 scoreline to go with 7-2 SOG. France dominated a dangerous Mali in the third match before conceding a late goal to win 3-2. France looked every bit the favorite in this tournament to me with an overall scoreline of 7-2 and SOG tally of 14-6. The best of the tournament along with Senegal. A bonus for me is these programs that let the coach move up with the players, as Diomede was the u17 coach while these players were in that age group and then just moved up with them into the u20 team.
Panama lucked into the knockout stage beaten 3-4 on aggregate goals and 7-14 SOG. They should have lost to Mali in match one but a fortunate penalty call gifted them a tie. An early exit is eminent.
Mali is a wild card. They have played in the craziest matches of the tournament by far. A dominant 1-0 lead evaporated against Panama in the 87th minute as Mali gave away a penalty kick to end in a 1-1 draw. On to face Saudi Arabia in the most entertaining match of the tournament (unless you had Saudi Arabia+0.5). Mali gives up an early goal and compounds that by conceding a penalty kick. A giveaway by the Saudi goalkeeper makes it 1-2 at the break (GREAT time to bet over here at half with all the defensive mistakes that can’t be corrected in a 15 minute intermission). Mali ties it 2-2, Saudi Arabia takes a 3-2 lead and then Mali scores the last two goals late for a 4-3 victory. Wild game. Against France Mali was thoroughly dominated 1-3 until a late goal made it look closer than it was at 2-3. Mali’s SOG tally is an interesting 16-13 (+3). Dangerous team that can score but makes too many mistakes defensively. OVER team.
Argentina looked every bit the favorite to win the trophy in a 5-2 pounding of South Africa. They followed that up with an impressive 2-0 victory against Euro champs Portugal, who I thought were the favorites at the start of the tournament after watching them crush the field last summer. Argentina must have had a letdown as South Korea played a nearly flawless match going ahead 2-0. A late Argentina goal closed the gap but it was enough for the Koreans to pull the upset. Argentina’s goal differential was a +4 (8-4) while their SOG tally was 19-17. OVER team.
South Korea looked unimpressive in a 0-1 loss to Portugal, then a blue-collar win vs South Africa 1-0 put them in the mix to advance. The aforementioned win against Argentina was maybe the biggest u20 win for South Korea in its history. However, their SOG have been an awful 7-14 (-7). That’s a big problem when you are giving up double the SOG as your opponent. The Koreans luck should run out in the first round.
The knockout rounds are very interesting betting propositions. All bets end in regulation and teams tend to shut down and play for the overtime when it gets close to the end. Unders and dogs should be bet a majority of the time as +0.5 and under 2.5 are great spots to be in with 20 minutes to go in a 1-1 or 0-0 tie. Most teams go really conservative. It’s more important for them not to concede than to actually score a goal. So you really want to lean hard to dogs and unders going forward in this tournament.