The 2017 Under-20 South American Youth Championship took place in Ecuador from 18 January until 11 February. @DarrenSpherical watched all 35 games, writing reports for each encounter that detailed all the significant moments by the most talented players that were spotted. This article focuses on the most notable starlets found in the ranks of Under-20 World Cup qualifiers Uruguay, who finished top of both the initial Group B as well as the final group stage (also known as the Hexagonal), thus winning their eighth championship. Before browsing below, it may be advisable to have a look at the final standings, results and goalscorers here and/or read the main reference guide published on this website, which features details on dozens of players, with every one of the ten participating nations represented.
(All photographs are credited to GettyImages)
Fabián Coito’s men made a cautious start to the tournament with two draws, before a couple of wins saw them breeze their way to the top of Group B. Subsequently, three impressive consecutive wins in the Hexagonal led to them being viewed by all observers as overwhelming favourites for the title and though Venezuela emphatically delayed their crowning, they nevertheless clinched the trophy with a victory against Ecuador. Overall, they undoubtedly had the most reliable side which featured two of the tournament’s very best attacking players; they utilised their squad rather effectively and have several other players worth keeping an eye on.
To view highlights as well as read more about how Uruguay got on and who stood out in each game, click here.
Top Two Talents
Nicolás De La Cruz (Attacking-midfielder, No. 11, Liverpool, Uruguay)
Based on the consistency of his performances, this versatile right-footed attacking-midfielder was arguably the player of the tournament, featuring in all nine Uruguay games and starting eight of them.
Taking on the role of captain when Rodrigo Amaral was not on the field, De La Cruz actually began the tournament in less than auspicious fashion, embarrassingly seeing his dinked Panenka-esque penalty against Venezuela easily stopped by one unfooled glove of the virtually upright goalkeeper. Some felt his spot-kick approach was that of a youngster absorbed in his own hype, but instead of mentally crumbling he showed great character to confidently dispatch another penalty in the following 3-3 draw with Argentina. In the Hexagonal phase, he would go on to showcase his considerable shooting abilities by scoring a phenomenal swerving long-range strike in a 3-0 win against Argentina as well as once more keeping his nerve with a spot-kick in another 3-0 victory, this time against Colombia. Aside from these three goals, De La Cruz came close from more than one free-kick, hitting the post against Brazil and also regularly looked to set up his team-mates via an admirably eclectic range of forward balls and crosses, from both set-pieces as well as open play. Had some of his team-mates displayed greater composure he could well have bagged far more than just the two assists. Nevertheless, the first of these was a delivery from a left-sided free-kick that was knocked home against Bolivia and the other was a cleverly dinked ball over the top of the defence which led to the second goal in the title-clinching match with Ecuador.
Being the younger brother of Monterrey’s Carlos Sánchez, earner of over 25 Uruguay caps and formerly of Argentina’s River Plate, De La Cruz comes from promising stock. Though a rumour that Luis Suárez advised Barcelona to sign him up has since been dismissed by the Uruguayan all-time top-scorer himself, this 19-year-old nevertheless stands in good stead to have a solid club career and perhaps even emulate his hermano.
Rodrigo Amaral (Attacking-midfielder/Forward, No. 10, Nacional)
Perhaps serving as evidence of his prodigious talent, this rampaging left-footed attacker was one of several individuals to have also played at the 2015 Under-20 tournament, when he would have been just 17 years old. Given this solid experience in what was a very disciplined and exciting Uruguay side, it was a surprise when he started on the bench against Venezuela. However, he would go on put on the captain’s armband and convince that he may just be the most naturally gifted player in the competition.
In the subsequent match against Argentina, he received a start and announced himself early on to purring talent-spotters the world over by scoring an unstoppable golazo from over 25 yards out on the inside-left. Subsequently, he found the back of the net in his next four games, with one these goals being an even more impressive long-range belter, this time coming after a turn from 30 yards out in a 2-1 win against Brazil in the Hexagonal, licking the post on the way in. His other goals were a penalty in a 2-0 victory against Peru, a close-range finish squeezed in at the near post in a 3-0 win against Bolivia and, on the first day of the Hexagonal, a low header from a cross to complete the 3-0 rout against Argentina. Ultimately, he would finish as the tournament’s joint top-scorer with five goals.
He has been compared to Wayne Rooney and it’s not hard to see why as he has a tendency to come from deep then bustle his way forward, is not afraid to shoot and is also very much capable of playing in team-mates; he’s also not bad at set-pieces, firing in several testing shots and crosses in his nine games. However, despite featuring in every Uruguay match, he only started six of these and, no doubt raising the alarm bells of many scouts, did not complete the full 90 minutes once, instead typically being on the field between 55-70 minutes. Weight and fitness issues have been consistent problems for Amaral who, despite claiming more than once during the tournament to have silenced his critics, has himself conceded that he has a tendency to over-eat and could do with losing about 3kg. Indeed, somewhat uncharitably, over the past few weeks it was common for observers, including a Venezuelan commentator moments before Amaral was set to lift the trophy, to refer to him as ‘el gordo’ (the fat one).
This may partly explain why he barely played for Nacional last season (despite regularly doing so the year before) and also why no substantial transfer rumours have been doing the rounds. However, since the tournament ended he has professed a desire to play in Italy and, very recently, moves have been made by an agent to activate his surprisingly low release clause (reportedly US$3 million). Thus, with his reputation enhanced and several new eye-grabbing highlight clips added to his portfolio, it is hard to see why many Serie A sides wouldn’t wish to take the minor risk and help him maintain an elite physique. After all, the rewards could be bountiful.
More Uruguayan Talents
It was very much a team effort from Uruguay, as they comfortably finished five points clear of their nearest rivals in the Hexagonal and, overall, scored the joint-highest number of goals as well as conceded the second-lowest amount. Thus, there are many candidates who could be put forward as their third most impressive player, though not a clear choice. Nevertheless, from their well-organised, sturdy defence, towering and tenacious centre-back Agustín Rogel (No. 18, Nacional) caught the eye, even managing to knock home De La Cruz’s free-kick against Bolivia, though the five yellow cards (and thus, two suspensions) he picked up in seven games may be an aspect of his game worth working on.
It’s debatable whether the man ahead of him in a holding midfield role, Rodrigo Bentancur (No. 20, Boca Juniors, Argentina), lived up to the pre-tournament hype that stemmed from his already considerable experience at a high club level. However, though he picked up a red card in the first group stage, he also often played his part helping out the back four, notably overhead-kicking a clearance off the line in the first game against Venezuela. He formed a strong partnership with the lesser-heralded Carlos Benavidez (No. 8, Defensor Sporting) and did gradually grow into the tournament; attack-wise, he scored a cracking goal from just outside the area against Bolivia and also had a minor hand in one of the goals against Colombia. At the time of writing, he has recently been undergoing medical checks in Turin for his suitors, Juventus.
Slightly further upfield, left-sided midfielder Facundo Waller (No. 15, Plaza Colonia) also impressed in a more low-key manner than the likes of Amaral and De La Cruz and could well prove to be a very rewarding investment for any team seeking a creative workhorse with a cultured left foot. After an opening group stage in which he often put in some useful balls, it was in the Hexagonal when he really made his mark. First, he set up the two latter goals in the 3-0 win against Argentina (the first with a pass up the left flank, the second with a cross for Amaral), then in the next game he launched the ball forward for Matías Viña (No. 17, Nacional) to score the last-gasp winner against Brazil. He even got on the scoresheet himself with the opener in the 3-0 win against Colombia, scooping an effort from the edge of the area into the back of the net.
Otherwise, striker Nicolás Schiappacasse (No. 9, Atlético Madrid) impressed, though was slightly overshadowed by at least a few other players in his position from other nations. Nevertheless, he sometimes looked sharp and often got into good positions, scoring three goals (including clinical strikes against both Peru and, later in the Hexagonal, Colombia) and winning two penalties (not to mention a fair few free-kicks), one of which he took himself in the first group stage against Argentina and had saved, but was able to knock in at the second attempt. This prospect only turned 18 in January and, though he started his career at Montevideo’s River Plate, has already moved on to Atlético Madrid’s Under-19 side, where this season he has featured in the UEFA Youth League.
He didn’t receive as much game-time as Schiappacasse (who he is a mere day older than), but another attacker who may nevertheless be worth keeping an eye on is Joaquín Ardaiz (No. 7, Danubio). He was conspicuous in the group stage win over Bolivia, one of two games he started; he made a nuisance of himself from the off and perhaps could have put away at least one of his chances, one of which hit the post. However, he certainly made his mark when he was trusted to make his second start (from six appearances) in the crucial title-decider against Ecuador. He scored both goals in a 2-1 win, the first a capitalisation on a defensive howler and the second a confident finish from De La Cruz’s pass. A host of clubs, including Sporting Clube de Portugal, are reportedly monitoring him.
Briefly, left-back Mathías Olivera (No. 5, Club Atlético Atenas) often appeared rather reliable on the ball, frequently coming forward and even got on the scoresheet in the 3-0 win against Argentina; as he has recently been bought from Nacional by an agent and held somewhat curiously at a second division halfway-house, it appears a bigger move can’t be too far away.
Lastly, a note to mention that defender Santiago Bueno (No. 2, Barcelona Juvenil A) has earned a move to Barcelona out of this tournament, though he can’t really be said to have significantly stood out; indeed, he played only four games and one of these was to cover the suspended Rogel for the 3-0 hiding dished out by Venezuela.
If you would like to read about the best talents from the other nations, then click on the following links: Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia & The Best of the Early Departees (Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia & Peru). All of this information is also contained in this mammoth Reference Guide.