Missed opportunities costly
For the second time in a row, the U.S. team reached the semifinals of the U-20 world championship and bowed out without earning a chance to earn the trophy in the final. The loss to China in penalty kicks was excruciatingly bitter, as defeat was snatched out of the jaws of victory in a final twist of fate.
The team has one final match in the third-place game against Brazil still left to play.
Soccer at the youth level competition is still about development, which is part of the reason that U.S. women's coach Greg Ryan flew out to Russia to view the semifinal match of the U-20 championships between China and the United States.
Tim Schulz had his players ready to fight hard for their shot at the title. The Americans dominated the run of play, as China managed only a single shot on goal in the entire contest. However, the old bugaboo of the U.S. team struck again, as the Americans could not fulfill the basic requirement of the game -- putting the ball in the goal (23 U.S. shots failed to reach their objective).
China battled to reach the penalty kicks, as their coach, Shang Ruihua, admitted afterwards. For a while, it looked as though the Americans would be as strong in those as they were in every other aspect of the game. The teams matched each other, goal for goal, for four rounds, until China's ace forward Ma Xiaoxu's shot was deflected up and off the crossbar by U.S. goalkeeper Val Henderson.
Brittany Bock then stepped up to put the U.S. team in the final match, but her shot hit off the post. On her next opportunity, Zhang Yanru turned away Lauren Cheney's attempt - and suddenly, the U.S. team was done.
"It's a cruel game," said Schulz afterwards.
It's true that the lessons learned of missed opportunities and execution on chances are painful, but better suffered now than when the stage is even bigger.
For most of the players involved, though, any future glory this current setback may ultimately help them reach is too cruelly distant.
"The hardest thing is that we know we were the best team at this tournament, but that will not be demonstrated when they hand out the medals," admitted team captain Stephanie Lopez. "This will take some time to get over."
For Ryan, there was probably a sinking sense of familiarity to watching the scenario. Earlier this year the senior team was battling Germany in the Algarve Cup under his guidance. The U.S. team's failure to score in regulation and in overtime led to the same outcome, a penalty kick loss.
There's no doubting the tremendous talent of the U.S. players in the women's game. As other teams become more soccer-savvy, though, it has become more difficult for the Americans to impose their will on a game.
It might even be that the U.S. approach has become a little predictably one-note. Both the junior and senior editions of the women's team rely on athletic, and nearly relentless, attacks on goal. Creating chances is a specialty, and the offensive assault can come from any number of areas.
Against lesser teams, the U.S. approach is successful even when squads try to bunker in to keep them out. As a general rule, though, the quality teams can not only pack the defense sufficiently to stymie the Americans in their attempts to score, but they can also break and counter into the space the U.S. squads have left in their own end more effectively.
These are the teams who know well that "almost" doesn't count as a goal.
Wily forwards, especially those on European teams, have learned, for example, that it doesn't always pay to go all-out for the goal. Defenders have an advantage when they can measure the full speed of an attacker and adjust accordingly. It's often devastatingly effective to hold something in reserve, and then spring it on a backline lulled into complacency.
To borrow an example from another sport, if a pitcher just throws fastballs, even if those are very good, it will be hard to win the game. Any sport demands not only creativity, but versatility.
The Chinese certainly played like they expected the U.S. to do all the work. Sitting back, conserving energy, they absorbed wave after wave of U.S. charges.
"You've seen many games throughout history where you are pressing, you are knocking on the door, you are hitting the post, the 'keeper is doing everything she can to make the saves, you are taking shots and they are bouncing wide instead of going in the goal," said Schulz. "You always want to question yourself and wonder if there was something else you could have done to make yourself successful, but they again, you will go crazy if you do that."
As maddening as it may be, asking what could be done differently or better is the first step of improvement.
It may seem counterintuitive, though, to have the idea that "less is more". Pulling back the attack may seem like the wrong way to score a goal. However, when an opponent is forced out of its defensive shell, their one can often find the spaces needed to strike the awaited goal.
The 4-1 scoreline of the US/Germany game, for example, doesn't tell the story of how the Americans were actually on their heels just before they struck for the first two goals in quick succession. Focused on finishing off their advantage of superior ball possession and nifty passes, the Germans relaxed a bit. With the element of surprise in their favor, the U.S. was able to nick a crucial goal.
The momentum changed so quickly after the U.S. scored, that the Germans were never able to recover. As the Germans pressed, the Americans showed off a devastating counter attack -- one that utilized well the speed of Danesha Adams.
Of course, it's easy to second-guess the strategy versus China after it doesn't quite pay off. Moreover, it's true that the game wasn't exactly an indictment of the American game plan. The rotational strategy of Schulz made the squad difficult to scout. It also produced a team that was energized by not only their camaraderie, but also by the idea that everyone was a contributor and not just a bench player versus a starter.
In addition, the U.S. was sturdy defensively. Henderson kept the ball out at her end to earn the shutout. The team managed to create numerous chances on the Chinese goal.
That's partly why the defeat was so bitter.
"Throughout the whole game and even up to the penalty kicks, the whole team was confident we would win," explained Lopez. "It's the toughest way to lose when you battle for 120 minutes and you know you were the better team on the day, but things just don't go your way."
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