KANO, Nigeria -- It was a strange night in just about every way, but maybe that was to be expected for the United States in the opener of the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Unfortunately for coach Wilmer Cabrera and his team, the string of events that unfurled Monday night at Sani Abacha Stadium are not something they will be able to look back upon fondly. After an amazing start, with the U.S. going up a goal and a man within four minutes, Spain rallied to take a 2-1 victory in a match that had a little of everything, including a heavy dose of frustration for the U.S.
"It was a strange game," defender Jared Watts said. "I had never played in one like that -- the lights going out, 10 men in the first two minutes."
|U.S. U-17 men's schedule
U.S. versus Malawi
Sani Abacha Stadium; Kano, Nigeria
11 a.m. ET, ESPNU, ESPN360.com
U.S. versus UAE
Gateway International; Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria
10 a.m. ET, ESPNU, ESPN360.com
The Americans had good reason to be optimistic at the outset. They had Spain on the run from the opening whistle, and the pressure paid off immediately when defender Sergi Gomez hauled down Jack McInerney just outside the area in just the second minute and was shown red. After McInerney knocked in a loose ball two minutes later to put the U.S. ahead, it looked like it might be clear sailing against the European power.
"Once we scored, we weren't going to change the way we played, we were just going to keep going at them, keep the ball and keep possession since we were a man up," McInerney said.
But Spain had different plans. Led by Real Madrid starlet Pablo Sarabia, who switched to left wing after the red card and terrorized the American defense the rest of the game, the Spanish put in a half hour of clinical counterattacking football that gave them the lead.
"We came out hard, and once they had 10 men, we thought we could settle the game a little bit more, but they came at us," Watts said. "We regrouped at halftime and talked about being a little more organized."
The second half was a different story, as Cabrera shifted his defensive pieces, taking off the ineffective Perry Kitchen and bringing on usual central defender Eriq Zavaleta to team with Watts. Zachary Herold shifted out to the right back spot and used his speed to get forward.
With that back four stifling the Spanish attack, the Americans dominated possession, but what momentum they could build was cut at every turn. Amazingly, on two occasions power surges knocked out the lights at the stadium, pausing play for several minutes. On numerous other occasions Spanish players fell lame on the playing field for extended periods. In the 84th minute, Athletic Bilbao starlet Iker Muniain appeared to be seriously injured when he stayed down for some time before walking off the field under his own power after being subbed out.
The Americans continued to pour forward through 14 minutes of added time but could never find the finishing touch that would have tied the game. They will have to make do taking out their frustrations on Malawi on Thursday.
"We created options, but we didn't finish," Cabrera said. "In soccer what's most important is when you create options, you have to be able finish those. I think Spain showed us in 10 minutes. They put the ball in the net with quality. We tried and we tried, but we couldn't do it."
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
Earl Edwards, GK, 5
-- The goalkeeper didn't have much to do on Sarabia's blast or the first goal, which was a close-range finish that should have been ruled out for offside anyway. Edwards might have commanded his back line with a bit more authority, but his distribution was very good.
Perry Kitchen, D, 3
-- The good news is that perhaps Kitchen won't be the last defender completely outclassed by Spain's attack, in particular Real Madrid starlet Sarabia, who turned him every which way for 45 first-half minutes, forcing Cabrera to make a switch at the half.
Zachary Herold, D, 6
-- Spent much of the first half cleaning up his teammates' errors while playing in the center with Watts, then moved out to right back for the second half and caused Spain's midfield all sorts of problems with his runs down the flank.
Jared Watts, D, 3½
-- The tall defender had a disastrous first half, looking shaky from the start against what was admittedly a powerful Spanish attack. He was caught flat-footed on the first Spanish goal and whiffed a clearance on what turned into the second goal, but settled down significantly in the second half when paired with usual partner Eriq Zavaleta.
Tyler Polak, D, 6
-- Polak looked solid on the left, stymieing almost all of Spain's attacks down his flank. He also distributed well from his left back position and got into the attack on numerous occasions.
Marlon Duran, M, 5
-- The small midfielder put in a hard effort against the Spanish but found it hard to keep up with their attackers on a number of occasions. His punt into the box led to the Americans' goal.
Nick Palodichuk, M, 4½
-- The Washington native played an aggressive first half, breaking up a number of Spanish attacking forays and going forward himself with reckless abandon. But he disappeared for long stretches as well, and his numerous long-range shots never troubled Spanish keeper Edgar.
Luis Gil, M, 4½
-- Gil looked nervous in the first half and failed to make an impact. But he came on strong in the second half, helping the Americans control possession and dominate, although they never scored the go-ahead goal. On numerous occasions Gil tried to take on Spanish defenders one-on-one. Sometimes that garnered positive results, but he occasionally lost the ball in key areas of the field.
Alex Shinsky, F, 4
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-- The left-sided midfielder created some dangerous chances down the flank but looked physically overmatched and was too easily separated from the ball on many occasions. Shinsky should have done better when he got himself into the box at the end of the first half, and couldn't finish his runs with productive passes.
Jack McInerney, F, 4.5
-- The play of the American star was an overall disappointment, as more was expected of the Americans' leading scorer. He got off to a dream start when he went up strong against Edgar and then finished, but he disappeared for long periods throughout the rest of the match and failed to seek out the ball when it didn't come his way.
Stefan Jerome, F, 4
-- McInerney's strike partner looked dangerous in the first half, but he failed to finish his best chance when he was sprung in alone in the 35th minute. A goal there could have changed the game dramatically, something Jerome -- and the rest of his teammates -- simply were unable to do on this night.
Eriq Zavaleta, D, 5
-- The big defender helped stabilize the back line after he came for the second half. He also had a near miss off a corner kick late in the game.
Victor Chavez, F, 4
-- A halftime sub, Chavez put in a good 45 minutes but failed to finish his golden chance. He was sent in alone on Edgar only to fire a shot straight at the Spanish goalkeeper.
Dominick Sarle, D, NR
-- The forward came on for the extended extra-time period but never really got involved.
Brent Latham covers U.S. soccer for ESPNsoccernet. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.