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Aug 23, 2007

Defeat to Tunisians leaves Americans on edge

It's all over now but the shouting. Unless the vaunted U.S. U-17 national team scores a victory in its final group game and also gets some help, it will depart Korea early next week as a first round casualty after losses in its first two World Cup games. The Americans' dreams all but ended Thursday at the feet of a superior Tunisian team that needed only a draw to advance to the second round. For the U.S. to qualify now, it must beat Belgium in its final Group E match on Sunday and get a perfect storm of other results to go through as one of four third-place finishers. "We're going to approach our game against Belgium the same way we approached the last two games," coach John Hackworth said after the 3-1 loss, according to the tournament's Web site. "I'm going to go scout Belgium right now and start putting together a game plan to get a result in the final group match." Against Tunisia, the U.S. encountered a nightmare scenario just eight minutes into the match. Defender Chris Klute was dispossessed 40 yards from Zac MacMath's goal, and star forward Youssef Msakni surged forward and unleashed a drive from outside the area that struck central defender Mykell Bates' hand. Colombian referee Hernando Buitrago pointed to the spot, and MacMath couldn't get his fingertips to Nour Hadhira's well-taken penalty kick. And just like that, the Yanks were chasing the game. It shouldn't have been that way. With 80-plus minutes to go, there was no need to panic at that point, even in the sweltering conditions inside Changwon Main Stadium in South Korea. Professional players might have known better, but it's not surprising that a bunch of teenagers playing on the global stage for the first time would start to feel the pressure. The early deficit clearly unsettled the Yanks, and the North Africans were able to dominate the remainder of the first half, with the Americans managing just one tame shot on goal. The already awful opening period turned into a true horror show when they conceded another spot-kick on the stroke of halftime. And Klute, who had replaced equally shaky Kofi Sarkodie when Hackworth switched to a four-man rearguard, again was the culprit. The Texan bought Hadhira's clever cut and tripped him at the top corner of the box. Again, Buitrago signaled for a penalty, and again Hadhira slotted home, this time sending MacMath the wrong way. The shell-shocked Americans emerged from the locker room with energy after the intermission, but still were outclassed by Tunisia's superior physical and technical ability. And they didn't seriously threaten until the final 10 minutes of the game. Their best three chances came during a 90-second span beginning in the 85th minute. First, Abdusalam Ibrahim (who replaced Klute to start the second half), forced keeper Atef Dikhili into his only difficult save of the afternoon. Then, Danny Cruz and Dan Wenzel headed their respective opportunities over the bar. Hackworth's team finally pulled one back after Alex Nimo was fouled in the box. Jared Jeffrey converted the penalty kick, then implored his teammates to push forward in search of a stoppage-time equalizer. But in throwing everyone forward, the U.S. left itself wide open to a counterattacking opportunity that Tunisia took full advantage of to score a third goal and seal the Americans' fate. "It's a tough result for us," said Hackworth, according to the site. "I don't think we played well enough in the first half, but we kept pushing and pushing. The Tunisians defended so well and we couldn't make the best of the opportunities that came in the closing minutes. We are very disappointed. This group has turned out to be the toughest one." Player ratings: (scale of 1-10) Zac MacMath, 7 Rarely tested, and had no chance on any of the three goals. Even if backup Josh Lambo gets the nod versus Belgium, MacMath is one few U.S. players who'll leave Korea with his reputation intact if the Yanks are ousted. Sheanon Williams, 5 Not at fault defensively, but the converted striker contributed very little going forward from his right back spot. Mykell Bates, 5 Solid in the middle after his early his handball resulted in a penalty call. Organized well again, this time in a four-man back line. Tommy Meyer, 6 Came in and played well after sitting against Tajikistan. Showed good communication with Bates in central defense. Made several good stops near the top of the Americans' area. Chris Klute, 2 Total nightmare. You have to feel sorry for Klute, who was severely punished for both his mistakes in the only 45 minutes of action he's seen in the Far East. Danny Wenzel, 4Another disappointing display. Offered nothing offensively, and let Jeffrey handle most of the ball-winning duties. Put a wide-open header over the bar in the dying moments. Jared Jeffrey, 7 The team's best player. Rebounded from a pedestrian performance in the opener, getting stuck into tackles and distributing competently. Took his penalty kick very well and fought until the bitter end. Ellis McLoughlin, 4 Showed the effects of the strep throat infection that sidelined him for nearly all of the first game. Largely ineffective; he managed only one feeble shot on goal. Replaced with 20 minutes to go. Bryan Dominguez, 4 His long-range shooting was dreadful and he was muscled off the ball by the bigger, stronger Tunisian midfielders way too easily. Less involved than he was in the first game and his passing was poor. Billy Schuler, 5 The effort was there even if the results weren't. That's more than can be said for many of his teammates. Chased down every ball in the second half, twice colliding with the keeper. Had two marginal chances but couldn't find the target on either. Alex Nimo, 5 His fancy footwork led to the PK call, but all in all a quiet day. Didn't create anything substantial from the run of play. Subs: Abdusalam Ibrahim, 5 Replaced Klute to start the second half and forced the keeper into a fine late save. Put in a much better effort than in the first game. Still, the results were the same. Daniel Cruz, 5 Came on with 13 minutes to go and added some spark. Not afraid to mix it up with the Tunisians, but will want the header he missed back. Brendan King, 5 Played the final 20 minutes in place of an exhausted McLoughlin. Didn't provide much substance despite some hard running. Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.