ENSCHEDE, Netherlands -- With the eyes of the soccer world focused on Enschede, fortune picked a heck of a time to turn its back on the Americans. Against Italy Tuesday night, all it took was one simple deflection for the United States' luck to change.
The United States hadn't allowed a goal for the first 324 minutes at the World Youth Championship. But when Daniele Galloppa's shot from 25 yards ricocheted off Jonathan Spector's back and into the goal, the wheels fell off for the Americans. With the seal broken, the Italians added two more goals in the next 21 minutes to advance 3-1.
With this loss to Italy, it makes it that much easier for the detractors in soccer's old guard to dismiss the Americans' achievements - not only in this competition, but in the development of the U.S. program in general.
This year's tournament could have been a turning point, a stepping-stone with the national team's success in the 2002 World Cup. With proven playmakers like Eddie Gaven and Freddy Adu playing along side a supporting cast without a glaring weakness, the United States emerged from the group stage as one of the favorites. While the United States earned respect by virtue of strong performances in the group stage, the words of Italian coach Paolo Berettinni before the game reminded the U.S. of the world's opinion.
"We heard their coach say that we have come a long way but he wouldn't have picked anyone else in the second round of the tournament," said Hunter Freeman, who scored the United States' lone goal on a penalty. "He was happy they got the U.S."
"They realize they can't take the U.S. lightly, but in their minds we still don't pose a threat."
The U.S. is still considered to be in the "earning respect" phase of its development. Every time the United States takes a step forward - such as winning a group with Argentina and Germany - one of soccer's established powers is there to knock them back down.
This time it was Italy, who struggled in the opening round and needed a 4-1 victory against Canada in its last group game to even make it through.
Following the loss, the players knew they had missed an opportunity to make a mark for their country in an international venue.
"We're disappointed, but we are also proud of what we accomplished in group play," said Benny Feilhaber, one of three players to play every minute of the competition.
"I think we all knew that we had a great team and we wanted to accomplish more than we did," said Freeman, "At the same time, we have to take what we can from it.
"This has to make us grow as players. All of us are still young and we still have a long career in front of us."
Feilhaber, Wynne impress
In the wake of the loss, some positives can be salvaged. Despite the early exit, the American players took full opportunity to ply their wares on the international stage. Two players that opened eyes were a pair of UCLA teammates: midfielder Feilhaber and right back Marvell Wynne.
The two player's journeys to Holland are similar in that they both intertwine opportunity with luck.
Feilhaber's journey to the World Youth Championships starts at UCLA. Coming out of Irvine without much interest from college programs, the Brazilian-born Feilhaber passed on Ivy League schools and academic scholarships to walk on with the Bruins.
He started a few games his freshman season before becoming a full-time starter as a sophomore. From there, it was Schmid's son who alerted his father about a potential national team player. Schmid invited Feilhaber to camp in December, where with time he became a mainstay.
"He's one of those guys who didn't have a lot of recognition outside of Southern California," said Schmid. "He has a good feel for the game. Of all our midfield players, he best understands when to slow it down and when to speed it up.
"He's been a surprise to a lot of people but he hasn't been a surprise to us."
Here in Holland, the youngster with the gleaming smile and black mop-top impressed professional scouts with his calm touch, inventive distribution and ability to manage a game.
"I have to sit back now and see what happens," Feilhaber said. "Hopefully, through this tournament I am able to go some places, whether it's now or in a year."
Wynne also came from seemingly nowhere to wow the crowds in Enschede. The son of former Major Leaguer Marvell Wynne Sr., was fighting for a starting spot on his college before making his splash on the international scene. Schmid, who lives in Southern California, like what he saw from Wynne while he played for UCLA and invited him to camp, much like Feilhaber.
Affectionately called "Man Child" by the U.S. team, both his physique and game suggest a more experienced player. He caused havoc for opposing defenses on the right flank and used his astounding closing speed to recover when beaten.
Both players, however, needed a little bit of good fortune to even have the opportunity to play for the U-20 team.
"Because I am from Southern California, I had the benefit of seeing Marvell play and seeing Benny play," Schmid said. "Had I been living in Florida, it might be two other guys we are talking about."
This game followed the general pattern of the Argentina game. In that match, the United States controlled the tempo in the first half and took the lead. They then weathered the storm in the final stanza to emerge victorious.
This time, at the start of the second half the game broke badly and the United States found itself behind the eight ball.
To the Italians credit, they came out in the second half like a house afire. Perhaps they felt slighted by the referee's decision to award Adu a penalty kick in the final minutes of the first half. The Italians resumed their vehement protests when the referee (rightfully) gave the Americans the chance to retake the penalty after goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano was well off his line.
Whatever the reason, Italy came out in the second half lathered up and controlled the second half.
Viviano made the kind of saves a team needs to advance in the tournament. In addition to saving Adu's initial penalty, he stopped the U.S. with brilliant saves on three occasions, tormenting U.S. striker Chad Barrett. His sprawling kick save against Barrett in the final moments put an exclamation point on the Azzurri's victory.
Adu, who missed two penalties (one was retaken and converted by Freeman) and failed to be a consistent threat, leaves Holland before getting a chance to excel. Billed as one of the tournament's superstars, Adu displayed some mastery on the ball and artfully eluded a number of traps, but didn't exert the game-changing force of a Lionel Messi. He did, however, draw two penalties in four games (an attempt for a third resulted in a caution for diving). Quentin Westberg turned in another big game in net for the Americans, coming up big when his team needed him. He bailed out Spector when he lost the ball, expertly denying Simone Bentivoglio's low shot in the early minutes.
Regarding Spector, his soft performance suggests he was not entirely fit to play. In his first action since suffering a deep thigh bruise against Argentina, he looked shaky early and had problems dealing with high balls that he usually handles. At one point while trying to bring the ball out of the back, his ensuing turnover led to Italy's second goal. However, coach Sigi Schmid left Nathan Sturgis on the bench and stuck with the Manchester United man for the duration.
Andrew Winner is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org