Imagine picking up the game of soccer when you are 12 years old, and in a span of seven years, starting five matches for your country in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup.
That is, in short, the tale of Crew SC Homegrown Player Aboubacar Keita, who recently returned stateside after nearly a month in Poland following the U.S.’s run to the Quarterfinals of the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
As with most non-senior national team tournaments, the nature of the U-20 World Cup is transitional, as players almost always have one go in the biennial competition. From then, players either surpass the age limit, move on to the next national team level, or move on to make way for the next wave of talent.
For Keita, 19, his ascent to the age group’s highest stage – the World Cup – came quick.
Proving a steady presence at centerback for head coach Tab Ramos’ U-20 side, Keita just recently joined the U-20 MNT in January of this year following a cycle with the U-19 MNT in 2018 and a developmental camp call-up to the U-17 YNT in 2017.
On top of that, Keita only just made his first appearance for the U-20s in March as part of a 2-2 comeback draw against France, a match which he delivered the game-tying assist in second-half stoppage time.
Following a solid showcase in the team’s final training camp before the World Cup, Keita earned a spot on the roster as a physical, left-footed defender, and a player with a “tremendous amount of potential,” per Ramos.
Fast forward through five matches - including three wins in 16 days - and fans could come away from the spectacle proud of the group.
From Keita’s point of view, the run was memorable, though not totally satisfactory, he admitted, as the U.S. set its sights on winning the tournament following back-to-back Quarterfinals appearance the previous two tournaments (2015, 2017).
When asked about his first impressions of coming to Poland and the stakes of the tournament, Keita said he was more excited than anything.
“I was more excited than nervous to be honest. Getting ready for Ukraine, there were no nerves. Then like a day before the game, it all started kicking in,” Keita said.
“When we got to the stadium and we were warming up, the stadium was already packed. That was my first time playing in front of that many people. [The nerves were] starting to kick in, but then we got the ball going, and to be honest, and I was able to play normally,” he said.
In the opener on May 24, the U.S. fell, 2-1, to Ukraine, who eventually went on to win the tournament. All in all, the U.S. was able to implement its style in the match, Keita said.
And as in most sports, especially soccer, things sometimes just don’t fall your way.
“It was just one of those things where you do everything right but at the end of the day, you still end up losing the game," Keita said. "When we left, it started hitting everybody. We can do everything right and still lose. It is one of those things where you can’t think about last game. You just have to keep going."
With more positives than negatives, the Stars and Stripes looked to rebound against a solid Nigerian team in a crucial match for USA’s chances to advance out of the group.
The scouting report said Nigeria had the physical advantage, so Ramos reminded the squad that nothing is as fast as the ball on the pitch.
“It was going to be a physical game,” Keita said. “They had bigger guys than us. Again, Tab told us 'Nobody on the field moves as fast as the ball', so we had to possess the ball and move it fast.”
The U.S. went on to win 2-0, with Keita earning his second start and a full 90-minute performance in the team’s first of two shutouts in the tournament.
After two matches featuring solid overall play, the U.S. did not play to their potential against Qatar, Keita acknowledged, though they went on to win 1-0 to finish second in Group D.
Taking lessons from the group stage, the U.S. entered the Round of 16 as the underdogs against a France team that, according to Keita, had a tendency to look down upon other teams, and with that, potentially overlook them.
“We knew we had to play together, and we have to keep fighting,” Keita said. “Before the game, Tab had a meeting with us about how France looks at other teams like they are better than them.”
With Keita again starting along the backline, the U.S. struck first in the 25th minute, but within 30 minutes, Les Bleus found themselves up 2-1.
“At first, when we were down 2-1, we started panicking a little bit,” Keita recalled. “Tab was on the side telling us in the backline to possess more, to move the ball side to side because the wingers won’t be defending.
“If we can find a fullback, we will have a lot of space,” Keita continued. “That is how the second goal started. We were able to find our left back. And we scored. They had a couple of chances after that. Defensively, we were able to keep fighting.”
At 2-2, New England Revolution player Justin Rennicks followed up on a rebound to give USA the lead with seven minutes remaining. From there, it was just a matter of holding on, Keita explained.
“It was one of those things where you don’t even care about possessing the ball. Everything we cared about was defensive.”
Next up for the U.S. was Ecuador, another formidable opponent who stood as one of the remaining favorites to take home the title.
Again, Keita earned the start, his fifth of the tournament, but two first-half goals from Ecuador countered Timothy Weah’s 36th-minute tally as the U.S. was knocked out of the Quarterfinals for the third consecutive World Cup.
As Keita said, Ecuador came out strong, and it was a tall task to be at top physical and mental shape in the fifth game of a two-week stretch.
“We knew we could have done more. As we keep going, playing that many games, there is always going to be one of those games where we were going to be a little off,” Keita said.
That being said, the U.S. controlled nearly 60 percent of the possession and totaled 13 shots compared the Ecuador’s 16.
Regardless, in accordance with Keita's sentiment, no one was completely satisfied.
Now, just 10 days from the Ecuador match, and following a June 11 Open Cup match which featured Keita in the Crew’s matchday 18, it still has not fully dawned on Keita the magnitude of the tournament, perhaps being a nod to the dissatisfaction in the final performance.
“To be honest, it hasn’t really hit me,” Keita said. “If we would have won the whole thing, it would have been a lot more.”
Keita is one of six players on the current Crew roster to compete in the U-20 World Cup, and only one of three to make it to the Quarterfinals. Taking what he experienced (and proved) in Poland, now it’s a matter of deploying the same work ethic and mentality to continue showing his potential.
“Knowing that if I could play at that level every day, I would be able to play at that level with these guys,” Keita said on his time with the national team in relation to returning to play stateside.
“The biggest thing I will work on now is playing consistent and building out of the back.”
Keita and the rest of the Crew return to the pitch on Tuesday, June 18 against Atlanta United in the Round of 16 of the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at MAPFRE Stadium before assuming host duties against on Sunday, June 23 against Sporting Kansas City at 5:30 p.m. ET.