U.S. wary of overlooking Uruguay
After beating Brazil to stay undefeated and win Group D, the Americans' biggest obstacle heading to the knockout stages might not be the dangerous Uruguay side they will meet Wednesday night in Toronto (7:45 ET, ESPNU). No, the U.S. should be warier of itself.
The Yanks seemed like legitimate championship contenders during their last two outings, which also included a shellacking of Poland. But let's not forget how poor they were in the opener against South Korea, when the U.S was lucky to escape with a point.
As one might expect, consistency is especially difficult to achieve at the U-20 level. For evidence of that, the Yanks need look no further than the play of the Poles, who seemed awesome in beating Brazil, awful against the U.S. three days later, then merely competent in a 1-1 draw with the now-eliminated the Koreans.
So it might be a good thing that several U.S. players know firsthand how dangerous overconfidence can be going into a one-and-done situation.
At the last U-20 World Cup two years ago, Freddy Adu, Danny Szetela and Nate Sturgis were on the team that beat Argentina and Egypt and tied Germany to win its group. But the high hopes many had for that squad where dashed when Italy sent it home after the second round, the same stage at which the Yanks find themselves now.
"In 2005 we beat Argentina and a lot of guys thought with Italy being a third-place team, it wouldn't be a real tough test," said Szetela. "We learned our lesson then and now we have to concentrate on Uruguay and understand that they are a really good team.
"We made some history by beating Brazil, but we have to put that aside and turn our focus on the next game," he said. "Last time, we took our focus off of Italy a bit. So it's very important to keep our mind on Uruguay."
The Charrúas will indeed provide a stern test for the U.S. They were unlucky in a draw with European champion Spain in their initial Group B game, settling for a tie after going up 2-0 and allowing the equalizer in second-half stoppage time.
"Behind Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay is a team that is right up there in South America," said U.S coach Thomas Rongen. "We know they tied Argentina in their qualifying process."
After earning the point versus the Spaniards, Uruguay squeaked by Jordan before losing to Zambia on Saturday. In that match, goalkeeper Mauro Goicoechea was sent off 19 minutes in for a clumsy challenge in the box. Zambia's Clifford Mulenga converted the spot kick and, despite having a player of their own red-carded before the half was out, the Africans cruised to a 2-0 upset.
Uruguay's suspect performances over its last two first-round matches notwithstanding, Gustavo Ferrin's men showed against Spain that they are capable of playing some superb attacking ball. Their main man up front is captain Edinson Cavani, who has scored two goals in Canada so far.
There is no doubt about Cavani's pedigree. The striker signed with Italian Serie A outfit Palermo in February after netting 12 goals for Danubio on the way to the club's Uruguayan title.
To keep Cavani in check, the U.S. will have to find a way to allow fewer chances than it did against Brazil. The Samba Boys peppered the American goal with 15 shots on target, but, fortunately for the Yanks, most of those were directly at goalkeeper Chris Seitz.
Against Uruguay, the back four of Sturgis, Tony Beltran, Ofori Sarkodie, and Anthony Wallace will need to be as cohesive and committed as it was against Brazil, where sheer will partially helped keep the dam from breaking in the second half.
Two other things work in favor of the Americans:
1. Uruguay has one day less rest and had to take a cross-continent flight from Victoria to Toronto ahead of the tilt.
2. Uruguay will have to rely on backup keeper Yonatan Irrazabal with Goicoechea serving his one-game red card suspension.
"We only have one chance and if we come out flat it's over," says Jozy Altidore, 17, the youngest player on the team. Altidore is tied with Adu and Szetela for the goal-scoring lead with three.
To beat the South Americans, the midfield triangle of those two plus Mike Bradley will have to maintain the majority of possessions. If the slick Uruguayans are allowed to keep the ball they will generate dangerous scoring opportunities. The wing play of Robbie Rogers and Sal Zizzo has been a revelation for the U.S. Those two again will be counted on to threaten every time they get the ball out wide.
With a pair of goals against Brazil, Altidore has shown why so many were high on him based on his performances in MLS with the New York Red Bulls. However, Rongen might be wary of overworking his young target man. Altidore has taken a beating operating as the lone striker in Rongen's system. As such, the coach might consider testing his depth on Wednesday if a goal is needed late. Reserve forwards Andre Akpan, Gabe Ferrari and Preston Zimmerman have yet to see a minute of action so far.
The U.S proved in its last two group games that it has the talent to make a deep run in this tournament. Still, it really hasn't accomplished anything just yet. That's why Wednesday's match will be so fascinating. Will Adu continue to dominate as he has since his painful early display? Will the U.S. pass the test it failed in 2005? Rongen understands that there are no guarantees.
"In the knockout stages, over 90 minutes, anything can happen against any team," Rongen said. " [We hope] in 2005 we learned our lesson."
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.