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Jul 15, 2007

U.S. fails to reproduce best form against Austria

In the end, it just wasn't to be yet again.

The United States U-20 team had its chances, but just couldn't find the goal it needed to beat a quality Austrian squad and advance to its first U-20 World Cup semifinal since 1989.

The Austrians deserved their 2-1 overtime win Saturday in Toronto. They were big, fast, skilled and didn't panic after falling behind after 15 minutes on Jozy Altidore's near-post header. They matched up well against the Americans in every area, and it was easy to feel things beginning to go Austria's way as the game wore on.

And once Rubin Okotie got the equalizer just before halftime, the momentum belonged to the Europeans for good.

The U.S. team was running on fumes by the time Erwin "Jimmy" Hoffer knocked home the winner with two minutes left in the first half of extra time. That's not surprising since U.S. coach Thomas Rongen ran his starters into the ground over the course of the competition. The only change Rongen made that wasn't injury-related was to replace left back Tim Ward with 17-year-old Anthony Wallace after one game.

The truth is U.S. fans can't really find fault with the coach. Unlike in goal, where backup keeper Brian Perk filled in admirably for injured Chris Seitz in the Round of 16, Rongen simply didn't have any reserves at his disposal that could replace the likes of Sal Zizzo and Altidore -- aside from Dax McCarty -- without a significant drop in quality.

Even if the Americans had their legs and shooting boots to pulled off a third-straight win to advance to the semis, they would have been in serious trouble playing the Czech Republic; starters Wallace, Michael Bradley and Julian Valentin, each picked up a second caution of stage two on Saturday.

The U.S. team also showed some immaturity late in this match -- which in fairness, is forgivable at the youth level. But it still was disappointing to see Adu and Altidore, among the best players at this tournament, each take questionable shots in the extra session when they clearly had better options to pass to.

Make no mistake, this is a frustrating loss for American soccer. The U.S. had on display arguably its finest-ever assortment of talent at this level and it was playing as close to home as possible. Yet, it still was unable to make history by becoming the first American squad to reach the final of a major tournament.

The Americans were eliminated at the same stage in 2003, by Argentina in extra time, in the United Arab Emirates. In the Netherlands two years ago, Italy sent them packing in the second round.

But bitter fans must remember that tournament play usually is a crapshoot that is mostly about riding your luck. The U.S. caught the breaks it in the opener against South Korea, when it tied a game it should have lost. It got lucky against Brazil two games ago, when the Samba Boys had a plethora of chances and hit them all straight at Seitz. And finally, it was fortunate against Uruguay, where an own goal three minutes from time allowed the Yanks to survive and score the OT win.

The post mortem on this U-20 team is that they were brilliant going forward at times and scored some fantastic goals. On the flip side, they were always suspect defensively, and looked a class below the very best teams (like Argentina) as the competition progressed.

Still, it is encouraging to see that players like Altidore, Adu, Danny Szetela and Seitz could be ready to help the senior national team in the not-too-distant future. And don't forget that Adu, Altidore and Wallace are all eligible to play in the next U-20 World Cup in 2009.

In the end, this team provided some real thrills over the last two weeks. It's just that in the end, their luck ran out.

Player ratings (Scale of 1-10)

Chris Seitz, 6 -- Was brilliant again at times, stopping 10 shots, two with his face. But he continues to have big problems controlling rebounds. His bobble on a long-range blast led to the equalizer.

Tony Beltran, 5 -- Competent performance at right back, but didn't offer as much going forward as in earlier games. Missed a tackle on Austria's first goal when he couldn't dispossess Okotie in the box.

Nathan Sturgis, 6 -- Cleared a ball off the line after Seitz had been beaten, and overall played well, especially in the air, where fellow center back Valentin struggled.

Julian Valentin, 5 -- Had trouble dealing with the big Austrian front-runners' prowess in the air. Didn't make any huge blunders, but didn't inspire confidence either.

Anthony Wallace, 7 -- Was fantastic all tournament, and this was his best game of the lot. Unlucky to be sent off just before Hoffer's winner. U.S. fans will be seeing a lot more of the FC Dallas rook in the years to come.

Michael Bradley, 7 -- Inspirational in the midfield, especially after picking up the card. Sprayed the ball out to Rogers repeatedly, and was able to link the defense and forwards most of the time. Had a great shot from distance well saved by the Austrian keeper after a surging run.

Danny Szetela, 5 -- Quiet day for the Columbus Crew midfielder. Helped out defensively, but unable to generate much going forward. Looked spent by the time Dax McCarty replaced him in the 63rd minute.

Freddy Adu, 6 -- Great cross on the goal, and dangerous throughout. Should have sent Altidiore in alone shortly after the goal, but tried an ambitious, unsuccessful chip instead. Could also have attempted a pass in the dying moments but unsuccessfully went for glory instead.

Robbie Rogers, 6 -- Active once again on the right side and always dangerous with the ball at his feet. Involved in the buildup to Altidore's goal, finding Freddy behind the Austrian back line to set up his cross.

Sal Zizzo, 5 -- Clearly still slowed by his hammy strain, Zizzo also could be hitting a wall after playing five hard-fought games in 15 days. That's a lot more intense a schedule than the UCLA standout is accustomed to.

Jozy Altidore, 7 -- Finished Adu's cross off clinically with a flashing near-post header. Showed good skill in trying to create a second half chance by himself, but he should have passed late rather than take an ill-advised, low-percentage shot.

Subs:

Dax McCarty, 6 -- Helped the Yanks maintain possession after coming on for Szetela. Sent Adu in alone with a clever pass, but the captain rushed his shot and fired wide after rounding the keeper.

Tim Ward, 4 -- Didn't look comfortable at all. Was shaky on the ball and drifted out of position defensively. In fairness, the left-footer was playing in unfamiliar territory on the right side.

Gabriel Ferrari, 5 -- Failed to put his one clear chance -- a header from the right side with seconds remaining -- anywhere near the goal. Didn't play with the urgency required of a 105th-minute sub with the U.S. desperately looking for the equalizer.

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