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Aug 18, 2007

U.S. looks for strong start against Tajikistan

The U.S. U-17 national team kicks off World Cup play against tiny Tajikistan in the stifling heat and humidity of the industrial South Korean city of Changwon on Monday (6:45 a.m. ET, ESPNU). It will be the first chance for all but the most die-hard American soccer fans (some would argue that if you're watching a bunch of teenagers chase a ball on the other side of the globe at that hour, you fall into that category) to catch perhaps the deepest, most talented U.S. youth side ever assembled.

On paper at least, it seems that the Americans should easily dispatch their Central Asian opponents in the Group E curtain raiser. But with consistency so elusive at youth level, the Yanks need to come out ready to play in that make-or-break first game. Securing the full three points is a must with tougher tests against Tunisia (Aug. 23) Belgium (Aug. 26) on tap to close out the first round.

Tajikistan, making its first-ever appearance at a FIFA event, might be lacking in international pedigree, but it served notice during its surprising qualifying run that they have the potential to pose problems for any team.

Coach Pulod Kodirov's charges barely squeaked into the final round of the Asian U-17 Championship that served as qualifying for Korea 2007. But once they did, they quickly found their feet, scoring group stage victories over Iraq, Iran and Yemen to advance to the last eight. Then, with a World Cup place at stake against Cup host Korea Republic, Tajikistan pulled off a shocking 1-0 upset to punch its tournament ticket.

The star performer there was speedy sniper Davrondzhon "Beanpole" Tukhtasunov, who bagged four goals in five games on the way to a third-place finish.

The U.S. cruised into its record 12th consecutive finals, winning its fourth-straight CONCACAF qualifying tourney in May despite blowing a late 2-0 lead in a loss to host Jamaica along the way.

Since then, the Yanks have pulled off some impressive results. Last month, they won 3-1 at fellow favorites Germany to go 3-0 (they also beat a pair of Belgian clubs) on a 10-day European tour.

But they also have suffered notable setbacks. The Americans dropped an eyebrow-raising decision to lowly regional foe Honduras in early July after going 1-2 at a Cup dress rehearsal in Korea in June.

But despite being bounced in the first round of the eight-nation event after losses to Japan and Nigeria, getting acquainted with the host nation and its venues (they play Tajikistan in the stadium where they met Nigeria just two months ago) should prove invaluable once the real test gets underway.

For most fans, Monday offers the first chance to glimpse some future U.S. stars. It is in this competition that Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu (1999), Freddy Adu, (2003) and Jozy Altidore (2005) initially became known to American supporters.

The 2007 edition U-17s boasts standouts right up the spine of the team. Floridian Zac MacMath should get the nod in goal ahead of Josh Lambo, at least for the opener. Captain Mykell Bates anchors the central defense, and Dan Wenzel is the team's top midfielder, a two-way threat equally adept at winning balls in the center of the park and starting the attack with a brilliant first pass.

The Stars and Stripes' top striker is Seattle's Ellis McLoughlin, who has a team-best 14 international goals since 2005. He will likely be partnered up top with Alex Nimo, who had three tallies in five games in Jamaica and who grew up in a Liberian refugee camp before arriving in the United States eight years ago.

John Hackworth's squad also has a fantastic supporting cast from front to back. On D, Tommy Mayer is the ideal partner for Bates in the middle. Wingbacks Kofi Sarkodie and Sheanon Williams are excellent going forward, while Greg Garza, Bryan Dominguez and Jared Jeffrey (the team's most experienced member with 40-plus caps) form a skillful and dynamic midfield in front of Wenzel.

Even from a distance, it's clear there is a sense of optimism within the group. "We have a collection of players that can do something very special at this World Cup," said Hackworth before the delegation departed for the Far East earlier this week.

Still, U.S. backers will be wise to temper expectations for this young bunch, especially after the much fancied Adu-led U-20s bombed out of their world championship at the quarterfinal stage last month, disappointing many who had them pegged as a championship dark horse. However, inside the 21-man team, there is no sense of caution, at least according to skipper Bates.

"Our goal for the World Cup is to win the whole thing," he said.

A victory against Tajikistan would be a good place to start.

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