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Aug 29, 2006

U.S. U-20s team are semi-sensational

It's not quite the little children leading the way, but with the Women's World Cup less than a year away, the U.S. women's national team might take a page from its younger U-20 counterparts on how to defeat a tough German squad. After all, the U-20 team managed to do just that, winning 4-1 at the Youth World Cup in Russia.

Like the senior German team, Maren Meinert's U-20 squad is the defending champion. It defeated the U.S. on its way to the title in Thailand two years ago.

Motivated to learn from the past and prevent the déjà vu of that defeat, the U.S. team set aside its disjointed play from earlier in the tournament and put together a comprehensive team effort against Germany.

U.S. coach Tim Schulz was unafraid to mix up his lineup again. Perhaps his shuffling worked to the Americans' advantage because the Germans couldn't prepare for specific players ahead of time.

On the other hand, the German team came out strong at the start. Meinert put five midfielders on to clog the middle for the U.S. Substitute Allie Long got a good look at the strategy from her perch on the sidelines.

"I thought that the beginning was sloppy," Long conceded. "We didn't get control of the game until about 30 minutes into the game. In the beginning, they had us on our heels."

Goalkeeper Valerie Henderson, the first of the troika of U.S. net wardens to earn a repeat start, snuffed out an early chance by Germany. That kept the Americans in it. Their hopes also got an unexpected boost when Anna Baless, one of Germany's top threats, went down with an injury.

The U.S. took advantage of the German team perhaps needing to adjust to the change after Baless was substituted. During a sequence following a U.S. corner, midfielder Amanda Poach knocked a pass to Kelley O'Hara, who volleyed a shot into the net.

"They were very organized and their midfield was packed," recalled O'Hara. "On the first goal, we were able to catch them looking at the ball and got behind them. I wasn't sure if I was offside or not, but I just kept going and hit a pretty good volley."

The goal gave the U.S. side an immediate boost.

"When we finally scored, we started to calm down," noted Long. "I felt the momentum definitely changed. Once we started playing our one-and-two-touch game, they couldn't keep up."

The improved play of the U.S. team paid dividends almost immediately. Poach garnered another assist when Danesha Adams scored off her pass. Adams would add another goal in the second half, and Amy Rodriguez scored the final goal in stoppage time.

Of course, beating the Germans didn't result in a trophy, or even a ticket to the finals for the Americans. The U.S. must defeat China in the semifinals for that chance.

Still, for some of the U-20's, especially those who were on the squad that lost in Thailand, the victory was especially significant.

"Germany took [the title] away from us last time and that hurt," admitted Nikki Krzysik. "We wanted to not only get one step closer to our goal, but also send them home in the process. You don't get too many second chances so we knew that we had to beat them. Revenge is sweet for certain."

The U.S. team can take pride in its willingness to do the dirty work against a quality German team. Timely tackles and tight marking kept the U.S. competitive until the offense stepped up.

"It might not have been the prettiest," conceded O'Hara, "but it was our best game in terms of how hard we fought, how good Germany was and the fact that we came to play."

An interesting development in the tournament is that although the games are being hosted by Russia, none of the teams in the semis is from Europe. The U.S. and Brazil represent North and South America respectively. China and North Korea speak to the game's development in Asia. The Euro-less semifinals point to an intriguing trend that may be a temporary blip, but could also indicate a shift in the balance of power in the women's game.

Yet the historical implications of the games were less significant to the U-20 U.S. players, perhaps because their focus remains advancing through the tournament.

The quarterfinal victory over Germany showcased the quality of the U.S. depth. With the American squad performing more consistently, Schulz can continue to rotate players. Not only does he have one of the tournament's fittest teams, Schulz has also kept his players fresh and eager to prove themselves whether as subs or starters.

"We know we have a tough game against China ahead of us," explained Long. "We also know we have even more to give and we can't wait until the semifinal."

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 soccercanales@yahoo.com