Despite dropping a game 2-0 against China to conclude group play, the U.S. U-20 women have a lot to be thankful for. Put a first-place finish on the list, as the Americans narrowly avoided a feisty Nigerian side by taking the group over France in goal differential.
Next up for the Americans is their future opponent England, a well-rounded squad they'll plate up in Chillan, Chile, on Sunday, Nov. 30 (5 p.m. ET, ESPN360). In a fortuitous turn of events, England staged a come-from-behind goal in the final game to draw 1-1 with an up-and-coming New Zealand team after a Kiwi player was booked for her second yellow card. England's Toni Duggan scored in the final minute of injury time to lift her team into the next round -- a testament to the discipline and patience of Mo Marley's much-improved squad.
However, the Yanks will have to rally after a deflating performance against the Rosebuds, who will not even advance to the 2008 FIFA U-20 World Cup quarterfinals.
"I'd like to congratulate China on a very good game," said U.S. coach Tony DiCicco in a U.S. Soccer press release. "They are a very good team that probably deserves to be advancing to the second round. I think today we played hard, but we didn't always play smart. A defensive mistake led to the first goal and then we were chasing the game."
Giving three players their first starts, DiCicco continued to cycle in his full squad in true form to his U-20 coaching duties. Chantel Jones replaced goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who has had an outstanding tournament thus far with two clean sheets against France and Argentina. Kaley Fountain started in place of Meghan Klingenberg at outside back, and midfielder Gina DiMartino and striker Alyssa Mautz plied their offensive talents on the front lines.
|U.S. U-20 women's schedule|
U.S. vs. England
5 p.m. ET, ESPN360.com
Unfortunately, defensive stalwart Kiersten Dallstream went down with a hyper-extended knee in the ninth minute, and DiCicco was forced to insert Elli Reed as an early sub. If Dallstream's injury proves to be tournament-ending -- which is unlikely -- DiCicco will be hard-pressed to replace one of his best defenders. The two goals conceded to China following her absence don't provide much reassurance.
"We played a good team, so I don't want to take anything away from China but this is a youth tournament," said DiCicco, over e-mail. "We have players who need to experience the game so that hopefully they can learn and be on the full team. It's also a six-game tournament and we want to be around for all six games. So, limiting minutes for some players allows them to play later in the tournament, We already knew we were in the quarterfinals, even though we still wanted to win today."
While some might criticize DiCicco for risking a potential first-place seed in the quarterfinals, the head coach should be earning plaudits for his pragmatic take on the U.S.'s youth program as an institution for player development first and foremost.
Defensive errors aside, the real story of the U.S.'s success thus far is a sharpshooting offense, which can no longer simply rely on Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux to drill a consistent attack against other teams' vulnerable nets. But in opposition to China, DiCicco's goal-hungry charges were thrown off their game a bit too easily by a well-organized defense that also managed to hold the U.S. to eight shots and only one corner kick. If England engages in the same tactics that China used to stunt the American goal explosion, the U.S. back line will need to be absolutely watertight if the team hopes to make it to the 2008 FIFA World Cup finals.
While the Americans should have more familiarity with the English side, defeating England 1-0 and posting losses to club teams Arsenal and Everton in international friendlies earlier this year, the U-20s have shown that they can run hot and cold throughout the game, despite the story the scoreboard tells.
"I think it was important that the full team won the Olympics after a disappointing World Cup," said DiCicco, ruminating on the state of American youth soccer in a phone call prior to the FIFA U-20 World Cup. "The U-20s have lost our way a little bit in the first portion of the decade and we need to do a better job of player development. We need to develop all aspects of the players, the psychological side, the understanding of the game, compared to the German player, or a Brazilian player, because we are not a soccer culture.
"We are not learning enough. We need to learn from the men's game at the top level. In the American system, winning at the youth level is overvalued. And winning and player development don't always go hand in hand."
This time around, the U.S. U-20 women have something to prove to the rest of the world, and that doesn't just include a first-place finish, but a 2008 FIFA World Cup championship that comes with style, preparation and world-class professionalism.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.