An exciting edition of the Sudamericano U-20 came to an end with Ecuador winning it all, after Argentina was unable to beat Brazil in the final match, finishing second. This is Ecuador’s first CONMEBOL title in all categories and deservedly won, showcasing dynamic football and powerful, talented players. Jorge Celico’s team qualified for the final round after beating Argentina, Paraguay, and Peru in the group stage.
Unlike most Sudamericana’s we saw Ecuador and Venezuela lead their group tables. Ecuador looked very strong, losing only to a well-disciplined Uruguay side.
A habit in Ecuadorian youth sides recently, Independiente del Valle had several representatives in this national team. Their U20 team, which had reached the Copa Libertadores U20 final last year, losing to Uruguayan club Nacional, included players like goalkeeper, Wellington Ramírez, winger Gonzalo Plata and midfielder Jordan Rezabala, who all played a massive role in the team’s success. IDV’s top goal scorer Stiven Plaza, who had recently joined Real Valladolid, was also called up, but unable to join the squad, as Valladolid were in need of the player.
The team also had several other players who had already migrated before the tournament, such as Diego Palacios (Willem II, Netherlands), Jackson Porozo (Santos, Brazil) and Alexander Bolaños (Colo Colo, Chile). The rest of the squad was composed of local players playing for Ecuadorian clubs; José Cifuentes at U. Católica, Jhon Espinoza at Deportivo Cuenca, Richard Mina, Exon Vallecilla and Alexander Alvarado at Aucas, and Leonardo Campana, surprisingly the only Barcelona SC representative.
In an interview before the beginning of the tournament, Celico spoke of the “importance of the tactical and strategic aspects in these tournaments” something he undoubtedly transmitted to his players. Ecuador’s tactical approach was brilliant, lining up in a very well balanced 4-4-1-1.
Their lineup did not change often, with the same starting 11 playing in most matches. In goal, 18-year-old Wellington Ramírez had a superb tournament, constantly making timely saves at complicated moments. He showed loads of confidence in going up to claim crosses, and his voice from the back helped keep the defense organized. His performances did not go unnoticed, as Real Sociedad came calling and secured his signing.
At the back, Jackson Porozo (RCB), captain Jhon Espinoza (RB) and Diego Palacios (LB) were mainstays throughout the tournament, while Exon Vallecilla and Richard Mina, split the other centre-back spot. Porozo at 193cm was a physically dominant presence at the back. Although he still needs work in the build-up stages and with the ball at his feet, his physical attributes made him very difficult to get past, and an efficient ball winner in the air. Now managed by Sampaoli at Santos, those are two deficiencies of his that are bound to improve.
Both outside backs had interesting tournaments, with two very contrasting players on each side. Palacios, a short, quick left-back, very capable at playing out the back, and of the two, provided a little more offensive quality. Jhon Espinoza is more of a no-nonsense right back, physical and fit with very efficient defensive comprehension.
Although Palacios was the more constant choice in attack, by no means is Espinoza limited offensively, even playing a big role in the first goal of their comeback win against Argentina in the final stage, essentially the championship match. A stampeding run saw him reach the byline after beating a man, and the rebound from his shot fell to Campana for a tap in. Together the defense and Ramírez managed to keep four clean sheets, conceding only six goals in nine matches, four of which came in their matches against Uruguay.
The key player in the middle of the pitch was José Cifuentes, who possesses incredible stamina, strength, and passing range for a 19-year-old. But what was most impressive about Cifuentes was his positioning, particularly in attack, which allowed for the fullbacks to release forward confidently, knowing Cifuentes would cover for them, constantly repositioning himself, and looking to be an option to recycle attacks.
The IDV academy product, currently owned by U. Católica, also showed he has a powerful shot from outside of the box, threatening from long distance often. He scored a free kick from 25 yards out against Argentina, completing the monumental 2-1 comeback win. Cifuentes is a very complete midfielder who ticks many boxes and was a no-brainer for the team of the tournament.
He was mainly accompanied by Emerson Espinoza or Sergio Quintero, two box to box midfielders, who would usually take a more advanced position than Cifuentes, looking to combine with Rezabala and the wide midfielders.
The attacking threats from this team came from the big, speedy, left footed-winger Gonzalo Plata on the right, the short, intuitive right-footed Alexander Alvarado on the left, and the creative and shifty Jordan Rezabala in the number 10 role.
All three are very good in possession and dangerous dribblers, who excel at combining in tight spaces. Ecuador looked to combine out wide, drawing out defenders, and leaving spaces in the middle. This allowed for the wingers with inverted profiles to cut in towards the middle of the pitch and have space for a shot or to attack on the dribble, favouring their strong foot, while leaving the space on the flanks for the fullbacks to join in.
As games went by, the understanding between Palacios and Alvarado on the left-hand side continued to develop, and the former´s overlapping runs from the back allowed Alvarado to cut inward and play a more central role when in attack.
Plata, Alvarado, and Rezabala were all on fire during the tournament, especially in the group stage, where they scored or assisted six of the team’s seven goals. They combined for a total of five goals and three assists in nine matches. Rezabala and Alvarado both excel at short passing, linking up play in reduced spaces and shooting from distance. Plata is more of a speed and power guy, nearly unstoppable in space and therefore extremely dangerous in the counter-attack. His performances earned him a move to Sporting Lisbon.
Up front, the Barcelona SC striker and top goal scorer of the tournament with six, Leonardo Campana. Contrary to what his tall, lanky physique suggests, he’s got great acceleration (have a look at his goal against Uruguay in the group stage) and is quite physical when holding up play up top. He has a great feel for the game in general, playing with his back to goal and when in the box, sniffing out where chances will come up. This is highlighted by the fact that all six of his goals came from inside the box. His athleticism and acrobatic ability were on display as well, as he scored possibly the goal of the tournament against Venezuela and another tough finish against Peru. Just as a point of reference, here is a list of the past top scorers in the previous editions of this tournament:
Previous Sudamericano U20 Top Scorers:
- 2005: Hugo Rodallega (11 goals)
- 2007: Edinson Cavani (7 goals)
- 2009: Walter (5 goals)
- 2011: Neymar (9 goals)
- 2013: Nicolas López (6 goals)
- 2015: Giovanni Simeone (9 goals)
- 2017: Lautaro Mártinez, Rodrigo Amaral, Bryan Cabezas (5 goals)
All of these pieces put together helped bring Ecuador their first CONMEBOL title in the country’s history. Physicality, skill and tons of promise, it’s safe to say that the future in Ecuador has never been brighter.