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Jun 29, 2007

First game for U-20s will set the tempo

Conventional wisdom holds that in any World Cup tournament, the first game is vital. Grind out a result, and your chances of advancing to the knockout stages improve exponentially. Drop that curtain-raiser, and odds are you're going three-and-out.

There is no question the U.S. U-20 World Cup team caught a break by avoiding mighty Brazil in their opener on Saturday in Montreal (5 p.m. ET, ESPNU). Placed in this competition's Group of Death, playing the four-time champs first could have put the Americans' backs to the wall right from the start.

Instead, the Americans kick things off against South Korea after Brazil and Poland open Group D play at le Stade Olympique.

"We're confident we'll reach our first goal, which is getting out of group play," says coach Thomas Rongen.

But while the Koreans don't strike the same fear into opponents' hearts as do the Samba Boys, the Red Devils still pose a significant threat to the U.S. squad's chances of progressing to the second round for an eighth consecutive tourney.

After all, it was just 10 months ago that this same Korean squad pasted the Yanks, 5-0, as the hosts in the Busan Four Nations International Tournament.

In fairness, only two players who played that day (Tim Ward and Jozy Altidore) are likely to be in Rongen's lineup on Saturday. But if nothing else, that result should serve as a reminder that the Korea Republic should not be taken lightly.

Over the last five years, the South Korean program has shown as much progress as any on the planet. The country has built steadily on its successful co-hosting of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, during which they shocked the soccer establishment by reaching the competition's semifinals. Since then, they have overtaken regional rival Japan as the most improved nation in the Asian Football Confederation.

Historically known for their fitness and discipline, this generation of Korean youngsters boasts ball skills on par with those from traditional soccer powers. And no Asian team has more experience at the U-20 level: This is South Korea's 10th all-time trip to the event.

The 2007 edition plays a high-pressure, highly technical style. They are quick, solid defensively and use precision passing to counterattack with speed off of turnovers. With one of the taller teams in the 24-nation field, Korea is also good in the air and displays a varied attack, either playing direct or using the flanks to unhinge opposing defenses.

"Korea poses a lot of difficulty because they are an extremely athletic team that's always fit, which complicates the game for you," said U.S. assistant coach Dave Dir.

U.S. U-20 schedule
U.S. vs. Korea,
June 30
Olympic Stadium; Montreal, Canada
5 p.m. ET, (ESPNU)

U.S. vs. Poland,
July 3
Olympic Stadium; Montreal, Canada
5 p.m. ET, (ESPNU)

U.S. vs. Brazil,
July 6
Frank Clair Stadium; Ottawa, Canada
7.30 p.m. ET, (ESPNU)

South Korea has been training in Canada since June 17 and was impressive in a 1-0 win over the Czech Republic in Toronto last weekend. But as always, their big question mark is finishing. Strikers Tae Goon Ha and Young Sung Shim created several golden chances against the Czechs, but could manage only the lone strike.

Those scoring woes are good news for the suspect American D, clearly the weak link on an otherwise stacked team. Real Salt Lake's Nathan Sturgis will be the lynchpin in the back, where he probably will be paired with Wake Forest's Jules Valentin in central defense. Ward and UCLA's Tony Beltran are the likely starting wingbacks.

The U.S. rearguard also will be bolstered by the insertion of Mike Bradley into a holding midfield role. Bradley, fresh off a fine performance as a starter for the full national team at the Gold Cup, scored in a 4-0 mauling of New Zealand on Monday in New Jersey. The closed-door scrimmage was the red, white and blue's final warmup before heading north. It was Bradley's debut with the team.

Up top, forward Robbie Rogers seems to have nailed down a starting role in the three-man, Dutch-style forward line after hitting a highlight-reel game winner in a 2-1 win over Chile last weekend.

Rogers was set to play alongside Altidore and Bolton's Johann Smith, but with Smith ruled out of the competition due to the ankle injury he sustained against the All Whites (he was replaced on the roster by Hamburg forward Preston Zimmerman), Rongen's plans might change.

Altidore could be used as a lone striker, or the coach could stick with the 4-3-3. Sampdoria striker Gabe Ferrari, while a different-style player at 6-foot-1 than the lightning-quick Smith, might benefit most from the opening in the lineup.

Of course, the key to the attack is midfielder Freddy Adu. If Adu is on his game versus the Koreans, the U.S. will create chances to score. Adu impressed against Chile, calmly slotting away a goal off Altidore's pass, then setting up Rogers' late bomb.

"I'm playing a position where if I don't play well the team's going to struggle a little bit," he allowed after the Chile game.

Adu will have every chance to succeed in the opener with the physical, experienced Bradley patrolling the space behind him. But Rongen expects more than offense from his captain. With that green back line, team defense will be paramount. That means everyone, including Adu, will have to pitch in when the ball is lost.

"If our talented players make a conscious effort to help us defensively, we have the individual talent that can make a difference," Rongen said.

"But talent doesn't necessarily guarantee you any success. There have been a lot of talented teams that didn't get out of the first round. So a collection of individuals doesn't make a good team. If we understand what we need to do as a team, we have a shot to go very far, because we've got some special individual players."

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.