FOX Soccer Exclusive
USA shows hope for the future
On the biggest night of their lives to date, the members of the U.S. U-20 national team stood up and issued a statement of defiant intent.
We are confident. We are dogged. We are proud. We are talented. And we embrace every challenge before us, no matter how difficult and no matter the final outcome.
This night did not conclude as the Americans would have liked. Mexico lifted the CONCACAF U-20 Championship trophy yet again after a 3-1 victory in extra time. But the rest of it? It exceeded every reasonable expectation and provided a sturdy platform for this team to build upon as it prepares for the upcoming World Cup.
"I thought it was a big-time performance for us," U.S. midfielder Wil Trapp said. "It showed that we have a team that's willing to fight for 90 minutes. Mexico is one of the best teams in the world at this point in the U-20 age [group]. It was a definitely a big step for us."
The progress started within the first 10 minutes. Two forays shortly after the opening whistle blew nearly yielded a staggering breakthrough. One lapse permitted Jesús Corona to saunter through the defense and subtly clip past the stranded Cody Cropper to open the scoring in the fourth minute. Benji Joya soon replied from the spot to complete the sequence after the Americans received the benefit of a rather suspect handball call.
More than a few teams would have crumbled after watching a bright start turn into an early deficit. The constitution of this group – plus that little slice of fortune – allowed for the immediate response necessary to avert further danger.
"I think we did very well," U.S. coach Tab Ramos said. "This shows the character of the players we have coming up in the U.S. Not only are we playing in a difficult environment, but we take a goal early and a goal, actually, when we're attacking. And the players responded well, got a goal back and we almost had another one right away. I'm very happy about that, the response of the players."
The reply didn't stop there. Mexico struggled to find its usual rhythm in possession as the Americans chased and harried. Although the U.S. did not use the ball as tidily as it would have preferred when it did obtain possession, its preference to play quickly and vertically placed immediate pressure on the Mexican defense and unsettled a rearguard that did not concede from the run of play during this tournament.
A couple of breaks in the second half – a deserved penalty award after Mario Rodriguez tumbled under a challenge from behind and a kinder bounce when Rodriguez nodded down Joya's cross – would have paved the way to a first triumph in this competition, but they never arrived. Mexico instead leaned on its superior squad strength and technical ability to assume control of the proceedings in extra time and score the two goals – including a stunning bicycle kick winner by Julio Gómez – necessary to secure yet another title.
"I have to give the players a lot of credit," Ramos said. "“This is their first time playing in a situation like this. I think they responded incredibly. They played a great game. Obviously, I'm very proud of that, but I see it more as some players who are coming up through our system who can do this. I think that is really important for us."
As difficult as it is to fathom after playing against a capacity crowd at Estadio Cuauhtemoc, greater trials lay ahead for this group with the World Cup looming in June. This group will change somewhat by then as Ramos ponders how to construct his roster for that tournament, but its core – including critical absentees Luis Gil and Caleb Stanko – will remain relatively stable. The operating principles cultivated over the past fortnight must remain in order to supply the foundation required to make the improvements necessary – particularly in defense and in possession – to compete at a higher level.
"The World Cup is going to be much like this," Joya said. "We just have to continue working. We have to get used to this because we're going to go to Turkey and it's going to be the same situation. We just have to keep working hard. We have a strong group, mentally and physically. We're just going to continue with that."
This pulsating night justifies and validates that approach and that confidence, but it does not represent a job completely done. Instead, it offers a declaration of greater things to come. Now the burden falls on this group of players to follow their grand gesture properly and render this landmark night as a stop along the way to greater achievements.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.
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