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Aug 29, 2007

U.S. U-17s get a new lease of life

No matter how close they came to being the first U.S. U-17 team since the Eddie Johnson-led 2001 squad to be sent packing from the World Cup after the first round, the Americans now have a second lease on life in Korea.

And even though their next opponent -- Group F winner Germany -- appears to be clicking at the right time following a 5-0 drubbing of CONCACAF representative Trinidad and Tobago, the Yanks have to like their chances of pulling an upset in the round of 16.

That's because last month (July 20, to be exact), coach John Hackworth's U-17s traveled to Geissen, Germany and whupped their hosts 3-1.

Greg Garza, Alex Nimo and Ellis McLoughlin each found the net that day, and all three figure to play key roles for the U.S. when the rematch gets underway in Cheonan, South Korea on Thursday (6:45 a.m. ET, ESPNU).

Hackworth has mixed and matched lineups so far, trying to find the perfect combination of players. After being outplayed in losses to Tajikistan and Tunisia, the coach apparently got it right the third time, earning a convincing win against Belgium that helped the Americans sneak into the second round by the skin of their teeth.

In that game, Josh Lambo got the call in goal (in place of Zac MacMath) and earned Man of the Match honors with a 2-0 shutout, the first posted by an American team in U-17 Cup action since 1999. Hackworth also made a shrewd, gutsy move by sitting star defensive midfielder Danny Wenzel for the second half. Wenzel's replacement, Kirk Urso, scored the first U.S. goal.

U-17 World Cup
U.S. vs. Germany

Thursday
Cheonan Sports Complex, Cheonan, Korea
6:45 a.m. ET, ESPNU

Against Germany, Hackworth has to make at least one more change. Forward Billy Schuler, who has played every minute so far, picked up his second yellow card of the group stage vs. Belgium, forcing him to miss this second-round match.

Schuler's absence is a substantial blow for the U.S. He was one of the bright spots of a largely disappointing first round, picking up a goal and an assist and providing constant energy while his teammates struggled in the hot, humid conditions in the Far East.

For the U.S. to duplicate last month's result versus the Germans, McLoughlin needs to step up big-time. The striker, who notched an assist against Germany in July, entered the World Cup touted as the top U.S. forward. He has done little so far to live up to that billing, but in fairness, he was slowed by step throat in the first two games; he was much more active in the group finale.

Expect FC Dallas striker Abdusalam Ibrahim to get the nod up top with Schuler out. Ibrahim didn't impress when he started for the ill McLoughlin in the opener but rebounded with competent performances as a substitute in the last two group games.

The German defense has surrendered five total goals in its first two matches in Korea, so it appears to be suspect. Coach Heiko Herrlich's team was beaten 2-1 by Ghana after playing Colombia to a 3-3 tie to open the tournament. So if the Americans retain the majority possession and are aggressive, like they were against Belgium, they will have plenty of opportunities to score.

But the real key to success will be how the U.S. handles Germany's potent attack. German forwards Alexander Esswein, Dennis Dowidat and Richard Sukuta-Pasu share the duties up top and have combined for five goals in the World Cup. Midfielder Toni Kroos is also an offensive threat: He contributed two strikes and an assist in just two first-round matches.

That quartet surely will cause Hackworth's rear guard problems. Still, after giving up four goals in the opener against Tajikistan, the U.S. back line has been pretty sound. Even in that first game, the defense played well for long stretches and was victimized by two quality strikes and another that took an unfortunate deflection into the goal.

In the 3-1 loss to Tunisia, the U.S. defense was solid. The first two goals came from the penalty spot, and the third was off a counterattack, with the U.S. pushing numbers forward in search of an equalizer in the dying moments.

Thursday's contest really is a crapshoot. The Germans are the obvious favorites, but the fact that they recently lost to the U.S. can't be ignored, no matter how much they want it to be.

"A number of players were making their debuts then, and we've got a lot stronger since. We shouldn't make too much of that result," German midfielder Sascha Bigalke told the official tournament Web site.

Time will tell if he is correct. But there is no doubt that these two teams match up well physically, technically and tactically -- so expect a close, exciting game no matter the outcome.

And now that the Americans are playing with house money, don't be surprised if they take advantage of their second chance.

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