You might think that the Americans got lucky Wednesday night in the second round of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, when they outlasted Uruguay 2-1 in overtime in Toronto. After all, late own goals that tie knockout matches don't happen very often. But the truth is, with its epic, never-say-die performance, the U.S. earned the victory Mike Bradley secured for them when he knocked Nathan Sturgis' scuffed shot into the roof of the net 17 minutes into extra time.
"Great teams find ways to win," said coach Thomas Rongen afterward. "I think our willpower, willingness to sacrifice, the willingness to go where it hurts, which we did, to go down and come back and eventually win the game and hold on for dear life, showed me the quality of the team. You only find that out through games. You talk about being courageous, today they showed they're a courageous team."
The beautiful game, this wasn't. The Yanks gutted out the result in a highly physical match. Referee Ravshan Irmatov doled out 57 foul calls and eight yellow cards, but for U.S fans, it was still gorgeous to watch. While most agree that this group likely is the most talented U.S. U-20 team ever, Rongen has preached the concept of team defense since the squad convened three weeks ago. He insisted that for them to have a real shot at glory, skill players like Danny Szetela, Sal Zizzo, Robbie Rogers and Freddy Adu would have to commit to playing equally well on both sides of the ball.
The four managed this at times during the first round, especially in the upset against Brazil. But the Americans took defending as a unit to the next level Wednesday.
Second-string keeper Brian Perk was flawless filling in for injured star Chris Seitz. Bradley and Szetela never stopped running, tracking back all the way from the midfield to their own end line time after time. The 5-foot-10 Rogers was bodying up on and winning headers from much larger defenders. Even early in the game, front-runner Jozy Altidore was back clearing balls out of danger from inside his own 18.
"I think as a team you have to be able to win all types of games," said Bradley. "Tonight was a game where we just needed to roll up our sleeves and fight for each other and run for each other and leave everything out on the field. To be able to win a game like that where you go down 1-0, it's not going your way, but then come back and get two late goals is an unbelievable feeling."
Uruguay obviously had done its homework on the Yanks. It relentlessly pressured the ball in the midfield, the way Korea Republic did to great effect on the first day of the competition. The South Americans also appeared determined to intimidate the U.S. players with some brutally physical play. But this time, the Americans dished out as well as they got, while their evolving and improving passing sequences prevented potentially costly turnovers.
In the end, the effort (plus a little good fortune: in addition to the own-goal, Uruguay hit a post near the end of regulation) was enough for the Yanks, who will remain in Canada's largest city to play Austria in the quarterfinals Saturday afternoon.
That one figures to be another tough match for the Stars and Stripes. But like Adu, the captain, said: "No team can win a world championship without winning one of these ugly games."
Player ratings (Scale of 1-10)
Brian Perk, 8 -- No hint of a drop-off from injured first choice Seitz (thigh bruise), and the way Seitz has played in this tourney, that's really saying something. Made a key save halfway through the first extra-time session when he batted away Martin Caceres' close-range blast.
Tony Beltran, 6 -- Made some terrific overlapping runs with UCLA teammate Zizzo on the right. Then again, those two have been a force on that flank all tournament. Served in several good crosses, but lost Cavani on the play Uruguay scored on.
Nathan Sturgis, 7-- Had his best game defensively and organized well. Used as a midfielder in MLS, he seems more comfortable playing in central defense with each game.
Julian Valentin, 7 -- Stepped back into the starting XI after a two-game absence and had his best game yet. Factored into the winning goal, but got caught ball watching on Luis Suarez' goal.
Anthony Wallace, 8 -- Provided an enforcer-like presence the Yanks needed tonight. Downright nasty in the tackle, but somehow avoided a caution until the first extra session.
Michael Bradley, 8 -- Got the winner, yeah, but his tireless work on D and well-timed forays forward is the real story. Also, his long passing was superb.
Danny Szetela, 8 -- Best player on the field most of the night, and better than he was in group play, in which he scored three goals. Was involved all night, and his cross created the equalizer. Shared the ball-winning workload with Bradley, but his vision and skill was what really stood out. He seemed to be in on everything the U.S. came up with on his night.
Freddy Adu, 6 -- Looked locked-in and dangerous in the early going. Then he disappeared until about the 80th minute. But he seemed to come alive right then, and was fantastic in the extra session.
Robbie Rogers, 7 -- Made a huge contribution defensively -- not at all his forte. Continues to show great instincts and shifty moves on the left.
Sal Zizzo, 6 -- Not his best night as he looked gassed by the time Dax McCarty replaced him in the 54th minute. But his earlier performances buy him some slack. Should get another opportunity against Austria.
Jozy Altidore, 6 -- Had a glorious early chance off a Adu cross, but snapped his header right at keeper Yonaton Irrazabal. Did the same on a half-chance minutes later. Took a knock that limited his mobility, and lasted only six minutes into the second half.
Andre Akpan, 6 -- The Harvard man acquitted himself well in his first action at the Cup. Worked tirelessly against the fading Uruguayan backs. Was right there on the equalizer and might have knocked home Szetela's cross if Mathias Cardaccio's foot didn't do it first.
Dax McCarty, 6 -- Played out of position at right back, but played the ball quickly and handled pressure well when necessary. Showed good footwork in tight quarters to help the U.S. keep the ball and make its tiring opponents chase late in extra time.
Gabriel Ferrari, 5 -- Should have done better on the chance Adu set up for him that would have made the score 3-1 and sealed the win in the final minutes. Instead, the U.S. suffered one last scare before the whistle sounded. Not impressive posting up with his back to goal.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.