After playing poorly during consecutive losses to open the U-17 World Cup, the U.S. finally put together a complete performance, won its first game and got the help it needed to advance to the knockout stages.
The Americans looked like a different team in their 2-0 triumph over Belgium. After being put through two days of intensified training by coach John Hackworth, they played with increased passion and focus, qualities that were sorely lacking in the earlier matches.
Hackworth made three changes to the lineup that lost to Tunisia and put the team's second-round hopes in serious doubt. Josh Lambo replaced Zac MacMath in goal. Greg Garza returned to the left side of midfield and defender Brandon Zimmerman got his first start of the tournament at left back.
The game was played in a steady downpour in the city of Cheonan, South Korea, about 50 miles south of Seoul. The Americans will remain there for Thursday's round of 16 match against Germany, which captured first place in Group F on Sunday with a 5-0 demolition of Trinidad and Tobago.
The U.S. dominated Belgium from the get-go. It owned 62 percent of the possession and outshot the Europeans 21-6. The Yanks were especially effective in the second half, when the 10-man Belgian side began to tire noticeably (Belgium played the final 54 minutes down a man after forward Christian Benteke was sent off for a high challenge on Sheanon Williams).
Billy Schuler and Jared Jeffrey provided the spark in midfield. Schuler squandered a few decent opportunities (as did forward Ellis McLoughlin), but his aggression seemed to rub off on his teammates. However, as the game wore on without a goal, the pressure on the Americans was clearly mounting.
Second-half sub Kirk Urso finally broke the deadlock and relieved the tension with an opportunistic strike in the 63rd minute. Greg Garza shot from the top of the box and the ball deflected off a defender to Urso, who settled it calmly before firing the Yanks ahead. Eight minutes later, captain Mykell Bates, who had been a rock in central defense, sealed the win with a powerful, headed goal off Garza's short corner kick.
The victory combined with Tunisia's 1-0 win over Tajikistan was enough to give the Americans second place in the group. Belgium, Tajikistan and the U.S. finished group play with three points apiece, but the Yanks won the tiebreaker because they had scored the most goals.
With a treacherous first round now in the books, the U.S. can focus on Germany. And although the Germans have impressed so far, they are perhaps the ideal foe for the U.S., which beat them convincingly 3-1 on German soil just five short weeks ago.
Tournament play is all about peaking at the right time. As bad as the Americans were early on, they still found a way to advance. Now, they have a clean slate. What they do with it is up to them. But if the U.S. can defeat Germany again, this time on the biggest stage, nobody will remember how close it came to first-round elimination.
Player ratings: (scale of 1-10)
Josh Lambo, 7 -- Made a great late save to preserve the shutout, but his biggest moment was the goal he nearly scored. Lambo's 70-yard, first-half kick took a huge bounce off the soggy surface and had to be tipped over the bar by Belgian keeper Jo Coppens.
Sheanon Williams, 7 -- Was far more involved in the attack than he had been in either of the first two games. Did well getting forward on overlapping right-side runs. Showed good recovery speed after getting beat a few times defensively.
Mykell Bates, 8 -- It was an inspirational effort from the captain, who added an exclamation point to his dominant defensive performance with a well-taken goal -- his second of the tournament.
Brandon Zimmerman, 6 -- Started his first game and played an hour. Solid on the left side and was rarely caught out of position. Made simple, effective passes after winning the ball.
Tommy Meyer, 6 -- Another fine showing from the rugged center back. Complemented Bates well, covering space when the captain left the middle to win the ball.
Danny Wenzel, 5 -- So ineffective that Hackworth replaced him with Urso at the half. After three poor outings, seems a long shot to start against Germany, especially since Urso netted the winner.
Jared Jeffrey, 7 -- Another good performance in the middle. Showed skill and patience on the ball and was able to control and pace the attack. Nearly scored on a long-range bomb in the first half.
Billy Schuler, 7 -- Ran his socks off and created several first-half shots for himself. His aggression had a downside, however: the yellow card was his second of the group phase, ruling him out of the Germany clash.
Greg Garza, 8 -- Involved in both goals and almost scored one of his own. Served a great cross to set up Bates. Missed a golden opportunity to score a third U.S. goal in the late going.
Ellis McLoughlin, 6 -- His best display yet but couldn't take either of his two chances. Had some good moments in buildup play, but will need to be much more dangerous against the Germans.
Alex Nimo, 7 -- Continues to show exceptional individual skill, but seems to be lacking in the final touch. Still, provides an element of danger and unpredictability every time he's on the ball. Hasn't scored so far, but remains the Americans' biggest offensive threat.
Kirk Urso, 7 -- Came on at halftime and was lively in his first action of the tourney. Showed plenty of poise on his winning strike, coolly taking the ball down inside a crowded penalty area before blasting home.
Abdusalam Ibrahim, 7 -- Entered the match for Zimmerman as an offensive sub and the U.S. scored three minutes later. His speed and craftiness caused headaches for the overrun Belgian defense.
Bryan Dominguez, NR -- Replaced Nimo three minutes into second-half stoppage time.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.