U.S. U-20s dethrone North Korea as champs
Holding up a U.S. Soccer Federation sign that said "Gracias, Chile!" America's newest golden girls displayed mile-wide grins, reveling with their hosts in La Florida, Santiago.
Rightfully so, for the Americans not only captured the hearts of the Chileans, but they also lifted the 2008 FIFA World Cup trophy high for the first time in six years.
The U.S. dethroned 2006 FIFA World Cup champion North Korea in a dominating 2-1 victory fueled by two superb goals from forwards Sydney Leroux and Alex Morgan, the most brilliant offensive tandem in the tournament.
"I'd like to congratulate North Korea on a wonderful effort," said U.S. coach Tony DiCicco in a U.S. Soccer statement. "It was obviously very difficult for us to hold onto the lead because they kept coming at us and giving us trouble possessing the ball, but I am very, very proud of my players tonight. We won because we played very good defense throughout this tournament and because Sydney Leroux and Alex Morgan scored as many goals as they did."
However, things weren't so blissful earlier in the day for the Americans, who came stumbling out of the starter's block. Nervous and unorganized, the U.S. defense looked awfully shaky in the first 20 minutes, and coach Tony DiCicco tensely paced the sidelines screaming, "Come on! Pick it up." The ball bounced around in the U.S. half like a pinball machine gone astray, as several key players had difficulty settling the ball.
Fortunately, Morgan sparked the offense with her hustle, and Leroux's well-placed strike just outside the box in the 23rd minute settled the team immediately. Once the scoreboard read 1-0, everything else clicked for the Yanks. More shots followed, and North Korea started to buckle under the pressure of the U.S. onslaught, boosted by two challenges from Leroux and Christine Nairn.
At one point late in the second half, the U.S. had an iron-grip 66 percent control of the ball, staging a remarkable turnaround from what could have been a very ugly first half.
"It's an absolutely amazing feeling," said Leroux in a U.S. Soccer press release. "I've never felt like this before in my life. After the game we were all crying because it just felt so amazing. I'm so happy with my team and the way we played the whole way through. We've gone through a lot together and to go to the final and have the gold medals around our necks is just amazing."
However, despite the fact North Korea racked up 17 fouls, the American's free kicks didn't do them any favors. Considering the North Koreans allowed only one corner kick, the U.S. set pieces were rather disappointing, as shots were either deflected or sailed high over the crossbar.
In the 42nd minute, Morgan took it upon herself to insure the U.S.'s fragile lead, slicing and dicing her way through three Korean defenders to strike a sweet fallaway shot for a highlight-reel goal. If awards were handed out for best goal of the tournament, Morgan's would win, hands down.
By the second half, the U.S. was more or less chugging along, but the team hit a rough patch in the final 20 minutes, when Choe Kwang Sok's side started to pepper U.S. goalie Alyssa Naeher with lofted balls near and on frame.
Surprisingly, DiCicco only used two of his three sub allocations -- a turn from his mission early on in the tournament to spread the wealth with his talent-laden bench. Considering North Korea's tally in the 91st minute was too little, too late, DiCicco probably could have afforded to bring another player on the field to take in some World Cup experience.
The tears on the U.S. players' faces told the real story: Hours of travel, training camps and missed NCAA College Cup campaigns were all made worth it.
U.S. player ratings (scale of 1-10):
Alyssa Naeher, 6 -- While Naeher had a superb tournament overall (allowing only three goals in six games), she was rarely called on to make game-saving stops against the North Koreans, save for one that got by her in the 91st minute. Still, the Best Goalkeeper award of the tournament was much deserved, and Naeher will be one to watch in the future.
Lauren Fowlkes, 7 -- The rock-solid defender made some key defensive tackles, including one early in the game when she deflected away a North Korean shot with Naeher off her line.
Nikki Marshall, 7 -- The center back had a brilliant performance in the final, heading balls out of danger, tracking down breakaways and limiting the North Korean attack. Her speed and technical skill made her one of the best anchors in the tournament.
Elli Reed, 4 -- Reed didn't bring her A-game, especially in the first 25 minutes of the match when repeated Korean attacks forced a number of dangerous turnovers and left her flustered. Reed, originally selected for the U-20s as a midfielder, came on as a defender midway through the tournament for injured Kiersten Dallstream and did well to show her versatility as a utility player in the future.
Becky Edwards, 7 -- Probably one of the most skilled players on the U-20s in terms of field vision and poise, Edwards is a natural stopper/center mid. She continued to impress by setting up her offensive front line brilliantly and pulling the strings in the center of the park like a virtuoso.
Meghan Klingenberg, 6 -- The left back played solidly, and did well to neutralize Korea's most dangerous player, Ra Un Sim. Would have liked to see her make a few more offensive runs, especially with her crafty footwork.
Christine Nairn, 6 -- No doubt one of the strongest players on the team, Nairn showcased her impressive shooting power from range -- but needs to learn to rein it in a bit more on the long free kicks. You wouldn't know it, but the Bowie, Md., native is also the youngest player on the team at 18 years old, and is far and away one of the most mature players in her age group.
Keelin Winters, 5 -- Although Winters did well to set up Leroux for the first goal of the game, she seemed a bit slow to anticipate in the first half. The Portland midfielder disappeared for long stretches of the game, but still contributed to the attack and assisted in the team's overall defensive efforts.
Nikki Washington, 4 -- Following a brilliant performance against Germany, Washington fell a little bit flat against North Korea. Whether she ran out of gas, or wasn't able to get a rhythm going, her work ethic was bar none, and she provided excellent support to Leroux.
Sydney Leroux, 6 -- Leroux had an excellent strike to put the U.S. ahead and give it a charge of momentum. With five goals in six games, the dazzling Leroux also took home the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball award. Leroux was virtually unstoppable all tournament, from the first goal she scored (10 minutes into her first game) to the last in the championship match.
Alex Morgan, 8 -- Putting up one of the most outstanding performances of the game, Morgan made several spectacular shredding runs through the Korean ranks, one of which resulted in a sweetly struck goal that floated into the upper-left corner. Her energy and intelligent play was a bright spot for the U.S. all tournament, and earned her the well-deserved Bronze Boot and Bronze Ball awards.
Michelle Enyeart, 5 -- The Portland forward made one good run, but otherwise, didn't get much of a chance to work any magic.
Ingrid Wells, N/A -- Subbing in for Nairn in the 81st minute, Wells only got a handful of touches on the ball in the midfield.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at email@example.com.