Veterans must lead the U.S. forward
The Democratic Republic of Congo should be congratulated for playing the U.S. perfectly in their opening U-20 match in Russia. The bad news for the Americans is that a tough, fast, and physical team can knock them off their game and turn a dynamic offense wasteful in front of the goal, so that chance after chance goes awry.
The good news for the U.S. -- they won anyway.
The 2-1 victory isn't one they'll treasure, perhaps, but a wake-up call in the tournament and a gutted-out result isn't a bad way to integrate the new talent of the squad.
Actually, by all accounts, the youngest members of the squad acquitted themselves well. Tobin Heath was an active player, and Casey Noguiera's technical skill created second-half chances for the team. Kelly O'Hara, the second-youngest on the entire roster, scored the goal that put the Americans ahead in the 33rd minute.
If there was ever a game in which to "blood" the more inexperienced players on the international stage, this one was almost unintentionally appropriate to the term. All four of the yellow cards given out were for the Congo players, who executed their game plan well; harass the U.S. attack unrelentingly, then break quickly on the counterattack.
Despite the missed opportunities, including the almost comical statistic of hitting the crossbar four times, the U.S. team must do better to maintain their hope of winning the tournament.
The veterans of the team are the ones who must lead the way.
That includes especially the ones who have taken part at the highest level of the women's game, training with the full national team. Lauren Cheney, who did not participate against the Congo, will soon have a chance to show how her game has developed working with the senior team.
"Obviously, physically and experience-wise, they're so much more mature than the 20's," explained the young striker.
Besides the exposure to the senior level, some of the U.S. players have faced the pressure of a world championship before. Stephanie Lopez, the team captain, was one.
"Having gone to Thailand with the U-19's, I'm definitely one of the main ones, so I need to show the younger girls what it's all about."
Cheney admitted that she felt more responsible for the result when playing with the younger team.
"I feel like I should," she explained. "I hope that I do. There's also Amy [Rodriguez] and Lopez and I think that what we learn from this residency [with the senior team]will really help with the U-20's. Gaining the experience with them will help."
Rodriguez did play against Congo and showed her mettle in putting away the winning goal via a penalty kick. However, the veterans had to take stock of what could be improved. Lopez commented after the match that she was disappointed that the team didn't finish their chances better.
Some might be surprised that Congo, virtually an unknown team before the tournament, could perform so well. However, their display reflects the changing landscape of the women's game as a number of teams begin to improve and invest in players.
Lopez was aware of this before the tournament kicked off.
"You can't look past any team," said the experienced defender. "I think that's what the 20's really need -- the consistency to approach every team the same way and to go out there and dominate every game the same way -- especially in the knockout stages."
As startling as it was to be pushed so hard by Africa's second-placed team, the U.S. can count itself lucky not to be in the predicament Germany, the defending champions, find themselves in. Like the U.S., the Germans faced an opponent, North Korea, who they had no prior experience against. They lost, 2-0, with coach Maren Meinert grimly allowing that the Germans were lucky not to lose by a worse margin.
Now the Germans must battle back, which may be difficult against a surging Mexico. Their young prodigy, Verónica Charlín Corral, became the youngest player to score in the history of the tournament. In fact, she tallied twice in Mexico's 4-2 victory over the Swiss.
Other title favorites, Russia and Brazil, canceled out each other's efforts when they played to a scoreless tie in their group play clash. Despite listing her on the tournament roster, Brazil has been unable to secure Marta, their star player, from the clutches of the Swedish pro team she plays with, so their hopes have dimmed somewhat.
Another contender, China, had a scare similar to the U.S., though they actually went down against Finland via an own-goal before coming back to win 2-1. Before Korea's win, the upset of the tournament was Nigeria's triumph over Canada. Australia currently sits atop their group, courtesy of a win over New Zealand in their opener, but the "Matildas" may have trouble staying there. France walloped Argentina by five goals to top the U.S. by goal differential.
For the U.S., how the other teams fare is really secondary to how they are able to gel as a team. Nervous jitters could excuse some of the mistakes of the first match, but the margin for error will only get smaller.
After the group stage ends, that margin becomes practically nonexistent.
"If you lose, you're out," acknowledged Lopez. "That's the reality, so every game and every minute it's crucial that the team has to be on the same page."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org