Editor’s Note: Justin Sousa is correspondent for Scouted Football and a contributor to Massive Report for this story.
Not many knew who Aboubacar Keita was coming into the Under-20 World Cup, but, for reasons good or bad, he is a consistent name brought up in conversations about the United States’ run to the quarterfinals of the tournament.
An inexperienced player both professionally and within the youth international set up, Keita surprised many by beating out James Sands and Sam Rogers for a roster spot. He shocked many more by remaining in head coach Tab Ramos’ starting lineup throughout the entirety of the tournament. Mark McKenzie did suffer an injury that prevented him from participating in the team’s first two matches, but Keita remained in Ramos’ favor even throughout the knockout stages.
In his five starts for the U.S., Keita provided a mixed bag of performances that gave great insight into his strengths and weaknesses. Though some may find it difficult to pinpoint what it is Keita does well from this past month’s fixtures, the fact of the matter is that Columbus Crew SC’s Homegrown defender had a sound tournament given his circumstances.
One of the biggest criticisms Keita rightfully endured was for his decision making. His thought process and concept of where to play a line-breaking through ball were evident, but his timing of the pass was consistently out of tune. This either forced Keita to play a lateral pass to his defenders or give away possession from trying to force the pass.
An example of the latter came in the first half against Ecuador. With Leonardo Campana closing off the lateral option to Chris Richards and José Cifuentes occupying the passing lane to Paxton Pomykal, Keita’s intended pass to Chris Gloster up the left was intercepted by an awaiting Gonzalo Plata.
Similar lapses in concentration and slow thinking seemed to be an unfortunate trademark of Keita’s first half performances. Moments prior to that giveaway, the Crew defender missed his first touch on a simple back pass from Alex Mendez. The miscue invited pressure from Jordan Rezabala and, though he managed to work his way out of the pressure, Chris Gloster failed to control his ensuing pass and allowed Ecuador to strike on the counter.
Keita also had the tendency to panic when placed under pressure, a weakness entirely exposed in back to back matches against Qatar and France.
Against Qatar, he was caught by Abdullah Nasser Murisi pressing high up the field and forced David Ochoa to make a phenomenal point-blank save off his giveaway. The center back failed to open his body upon receiving the lateral ball from Richards, allowing Murisi to catch Keita completely unaware and with his head down.
The sheer presence of Moussa Diaby next to him seemed to give Keita the jitters whenever he was in possession. On one occasion, Keita did well to step up and intercept Nabil Alioui’s intended pass to Diaby across the final third, but he stumbled over himself and cleared the ball when he could have easily carried it forward. France’s natural press also forced Keita to resort to consistently passing the ball back to Brady Scott in goal. Though negative balls are not necessarily bad, they should not be a player’s go-to outlet every time he is on the ball with the slightest bit of pressure.
That segment with Diaby, however, does touch upon an aspect of Keita’s game that was relatively impressive. Despite not having the quickness to pull the trigger on a pass one or two touches sooner, he had an acute instinct of knowing when and when not to step out of his defensive line to apply pressure.
When the U.S. was settled into the team’s defensive shape, Keita looked much more comfortable and confident stepping out of his defensive line. He did tend to leave the space he left exposed, especially if the No. 6 was not quick enough to fill the gap, but Keita always seemed to either come away with possession or force his opponent into playing a negative ball. It was an attribute the often rejuvenated his side during dry spells of a match, sparking urgency and desire within his teammates from that of his own.
His most prized asset, though, is his physicality. Vladyslav Supriaha, one of the best target strikers at this year’s tournament, was completely nullified by the aerial dominance Keita established over him. Even Heorhiy Tsitaishvili and Serhii Buletsa struggled at times to utilize their pace on the counter as Keita kept pace with them stride for stride.
Keita’s reflexes within the penalty box were second to none as well when it came to closing opponents down who stumbled upon a loose ball. France often found themselves in these situations with their onslaught of attacks, but the center back was off his mark the instant he realized potential danger in order to put in a challenge or provide a crucial block on a point-blank effort.
In arguably his best performance of the tournament, Nigeria rarely ever got the better of Keita with their crosses or cuts inside from either flank. His ability to read the flight path of an incoming cross was impeccable in that match, restricting Nigeria to playing through the middle given their lack of success providing service from out wide. Maxwell Effiom opened a decent shooting opportunity for himself after beating Gloster, but Keita was there to block his effort.
Off the back of an injury and with only about 200 minutes of professional soccer under his belt,
it is fair to say that this was a relatively successful tournament for Keita individually. Most of the technical and mental aspects of the game he floundered in will only come with more game time, a resource he should find plenty of for the remainder of the season when he returns to his loan with the Richmond Kickers.
Richmond is also a side that prefers to play the ball out from the back, which will pivotal to developing Keita into a better ball-playing center back. His skillset, though raw, is incredibly well versed for a 19-year-old and more time playing at the professional level is bound to cook up the stud Keita gave flashes of being throughout the U-20 World Cup.