Germany provides a true test
It doesn't seem like much of a reward for winning a group. The recompense for the U.S. U-20 women's team topping France in their final match of group play in Russia was an appointment to face the defending champions, Germany, in the quarterfinals.
Though it is Germany who dropped a game to the North Koreans, while the U.S. remains unbeaten, the Germans in some ways enter the match with more momentum. After all, the German team regrouped from their opening loss to demolish Mexico 9-0. Germany finished with fifteen goals in group play, more than doubling the U.S. total of seven.
Germany has a competitive history with the U.S. squads, as the women's teams have disputed World Cups, Algarve Cups, Nordic Cups and Olympic matches. The Germans knocked the U.S. out of the last youth women's world championship in Thailand, back when it was the U-19 World Cup.
Yet U.S. coach Tim Schulz feels his players are ready for the challenge.
"We have a very, very deep group of players," he explained, then focused on specific attributes he was pleased with. "The diversity [of skills]. Their attitudes. Their willingness not to be satisfied with their play makes this a special group."
It might seem as if the U.S., placed in an arguably easier group, is still untested and unprepared for what Germany can do.
However, like the talented, but restless student in class, this U.S. squad might need the higher degree of difficulty to bring out true measure of their abilities. The Americans haven't had to play their best yet, and have beaten teams without doing so.
"We gave up a couple of weak goals against weaker opponents," said Schulz. The ball possession needs to get cleaner while we are going forward."
Maren Meinert's German team offer opposition worthy of the U.S. team's top efforts. Schulz had his game plan in place.
"We need to look after a couple of their key players," admitted Schulz. "Their No. 7 [Fatmire Bajramaj] has some very dangerous qualities. Their No. 10 [Celia Okoyino da Mbabi] is an attacking mid in a 4-3-3 and is in and out of the senior team. She has a soccer intelligence about her. To nullify these two, I am not going to go out of my way other than to make our back line very aware of No. 7 and let our defensive midfield know that one needs to stay home while the other pushes forward."
Germany's players combine both technical skill and toughness.
"Germany is very physical," observed U.S. goalkeeper Valerie Henderson. "A 'keeper needs to establish herself as dominant and not get pushed around."
A lot of the game preparation for the U.S., however, was designed to keep a comfortable routine going for the players.
"We just focused on how our defense was going to play together and our attacking shape," explained forward Kelley O'Hara of the team's recent practice. "Game tactics, and then we worked on our different areas of specialization, like we always do the day before a game."
Though perhaps no other coach in the tournament has used more players, Schulz has been unafraid to rotate his roster around almost completely. He has used a different goalkeeper, for example, in every game.
"That was purely just to get all the players' nerves out, and keep the team unity going," Schulz stated. "This is something we have done in the past six months so they were comfortable with that."
Though all of the U.S. goalkeepers performed well, Henderson's remarkable effort against France may have earned her the nod for the next match. She saved nine shots on goal.
"The three of us are close," stated Henderson of fellow netminders Kelsey Davis and Joanna Haig. "We keep each other working hard at training, even the day before a game when another one of us is going to start."
The potential drawback to the rotational approach of Schulz might be that without a reliable lineup to build on-field understanding, players may lack the awareness that constant familiarity brings.
"A lot of goalkeeping is about confidence, and knowing that you are the starter does help you out," admitted Henderson, who is known for her ability to marshal the defense. "I'm very vocal and try to keep everyone organized and confident by staying in their ear and making sure everyone knows where they are on the field."
Though the outcome of the game against France did not affect the advancement of both teams to the elimination rounds, Henderson did not minimize its significance.
"I go into every game with the same mentality, that I want the shutout," affirmed Henderson. "The game was really important -- as we see ourselves as one of the top teams. We wanted to get a win and give ourselves momentum heading into the quarterfinals."
The U.S. also has a wealth of options in the attack. If the lineup against France is any indication, Schulz could start a physical duo, such as Lauren Cheney and Amy Rodriquez and then bring on the speed of a player such as Jessica Rostedt to take advantage of a tiring defense.
A wild card for the U.S. is the creative play of the youngest members of team. O'Hara, Tobin Heath and Casey Nogueira have emerged this tournament as crucial contributors to the squad.
Schulz acknowledged that the youthful stars were the unexpectedly pleasant surprise of the Russia campaign thus far. It could be partly because they are unburdened by expectations. O'Hara, who scored the first U.S. goal of the competition, wasn't intimidated by the circumstances.
"I don't ever really feel pressure, because it's just playing soccer," O'Hara declared. "There is pressure to prove yourself, but you just go out and do what you've always done and have fun with it."
O'Hara crammed a lot of action into her two appearances.
"I've scored a goal and got kicked out of a game, but really the most memorable part has been seeing my teammates come together on this amazing journey."
By giving so many players, including inexperienced ones, the opportunity to test themselves against the world, Schulz was looking ahead to the ultimate goal of the U-20 team -- developing players for the senior squad.
"The players obviously lack experience as they are young, but there is nothing hard about coaching them," Schulz stated. "They are all so eager to learn and they all work very hard. There is no magical answer at making jumps from one level to the next. It's 99 percent hard work and that has to be the fundamental answer."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org