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U.S. displays improved defensive discipline against Malawi

KANO, Nigeria -- Wilmer Cabrera's checklist for his national team going into the second group game of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup on Thursday against Malawi was simple. First, get organized in the back. Then, put away some scoring chances.

Defensive organization? Check. Finishing? Come back next week.

U.S. U-17 men's schedule
Sunday
U.S. versus United Arab Emirates
Gateway International; Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria
10 a.m. ET, ESPNU, ESPN360.com

The Americans got their act together on the back line and held a speedy and physical Malawi team scoreless for 90 minutes. However, their attack continued to have trouble turning possession into concrete chances to score, and when those opportunities came, one after another was squandered once again.

A narrow one-goal victory was eventually provided when Alex Shinsky knocked a loose ball forward and the Malawian keeper fumbled the ball through his arms, between his legs and into the net in the 54th minute. Despite the lack of cosmetic appeal, the team earned three valuable points that moved it that much closer to qualifying for the next round.

"It was a tough, difficult game," said Cabrera, the U.S. under-17 national team's coach. "For us it was very important to improve in two areas, especially defensively. We needed to come back after what happened in the last game against Spain. We're still working on finishing, but one was good enough to win the game."

The defense did look much sharper than it had against an undermanned Spanish team, which thrashed the Americans in counterattack on Monday. The newfound organization showed as Malawi was caught offside no fewer than 18 times against a back line that held its shape and still managed to get into the attack down the flanks.

"We definitely talked about defensive tactics," left back Tyler Polak said. "Getting things under control and covering for each other, sliding, and I think we did a lot better today, and it showed."

But if Cabrera is pleased with his defense, he will have to go back to the drawing board quickly to figure out exactly what his attack is missing when the moment comes to put the ball in the net. The Americans missed an early chance to grab the lead when Jack McInerney headed down sharply on goal off a corner kick, only to see the ball ricochet off the Malawian goalie and out of play.

As the first half wore on, the Americans tired under the hot sun, and the chances dried up as well. For the second straight game in Nigeria, the Americans held a huge advantage in possession -- they had the ball 58 percent of the time -- but the midfield had difficulty linking with the forwards, and the ball control seldom turned into open looks at the goal.

"A lot of times we're just trying to force it," said midfielder Luis Gil, whose clever back-heel flick into the box led to Shinsky's goal. "Or sometimes we just do it individually, and that's a problem we need to fix. If we just play more simply, I think that will make it much easier for us. I think it will work out from game to game, we've just got to get a rhythm going."

When the day was through, the U.S. had done what it needed to put itself in position to advance to the elimination round with any sort of result in the final group match against the United Arab Emirates. In the end, the result had a lot in common with the lone goal in that it was produced by hard work, a little flair and some luck.

"I was just focusing on getting a clean hit on the ball," Shinsky said. "I feel lucky that it went in, because the goalie made a mistake and it rolled in. But a goal is a goal, and I'll take it."

Player ratings (scale of 1-10)

Earl Edwards, GK, 6.5: The future UCLA Bruin turned in another solid performance in the net, making a handful of saves and coming up big on a late free kick that was headed for the upper corner. Edwards also continued to get the ball back into play quickly on restarts, fueling the American attack.

Eriq Zavaleta, D, 6: Managed to play simply and avoid mistakes, and helped keep the American back four in alignment all day, leading to Malawi's huge haul of offside infractions.

Zachary Herold, D, 6: The right back didn't turn in the same kind of offensive performance he had against Spain, scuffing a number of intended crosses well short of the area. Herold did tirelessly get up and down the right flank for 90 minutes and did his primary defensive job well.

Jared Watts, D, 6: The anchor of the defense upped his level considerably over the previous outing against Spain and eliminated mistakes by playing simply against a speedy Malawian front line. That attack could have caused more problems had it not been for Watts' poise and consistency in the air.

Tyler Polak, D, 7.5: The unsung hero for the Americans, Polak never seemed to run out of gas, despite the searing heat of the humid African afternoon. At any given time, Polak could be found almost anywhere on the field, breaking up counterattacks or providing good service, but always managed to get back to his left flank to clean up dangerous incursions there.

Marlon Duran, M, 6: The compact midfielder added composure and ballhandling and put in a tough 90-minute shift as the principal ball winner in the middle of the field. He also added to the attack more than once.

Nick Palodichuk, M, 5: The big central midfielder made some good runs early and threatened with a few long-range shots. But he tired quickly, becoming a nonfactor in the last half hour as he moved out to the left side and played out the final minutes sucking wind within a 30-yard band along the sideline.

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Luis Gil, M, 6.5: Showed a lot of the qualities that put him among the Americans' most highly rated talents. His back-heel flick into the box was classy and led to the American goal. If Gil can begin to make that final pass into the front line with some consistency, he may end up among the stars of this tournament.

Alex Shinsky, F, 7: Terrorized Malawi's right flank for 66 minutes, finding his way into the box on numerous occasions. Still, Shinsky also had trouble finding that killer pass that would have led to a quality shot on goal, although he did help out on defense consistently before tiring late. His opportunistic goal nudges him up as well.

Jack McInerney, F, 5: The Americans' leading scorer turned in another somewhat lackadaisical performance, but he did manage to create a number of openings that led to half chances. To increase his effectiveness, McInerney needs to up his work rate a bit and look more for the ball when service isn't provided exactly where he wants it.

Victor Chavez, F, 4: In action for a second time after a tepid performance Monday, Chavez again failed to make an impact in just more than a half of soccer. He put in a lot of effort pressuring the Malawi back line but usually was second to the ball after the Malawian defense and faded quickly in the hot sun.

Subs

Andrew Craven, F, 6.5: His insertion up front alongside his fellow Georgian made a huge impact on the game. Craven's speed and confidence on the ball gave life to the U.S. attack, and the goal came after one of his initial forays down the right side led to a long cross.

Carlos Martinez, MF, 4.5: This should have been a good chance for Martinez to show well, as the midfielder had all the space and conditions to add an offensive spark when he came on for the final 25 minutes. But he was ineffective, spending too much time calling for the ball on offense and seldom tracking back to help out a tired defense.

Boyd Okwuonu, D, NR: The Nigerian-American played the last few minutes in front of part of his extended family in Kano.

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 brentlatham@ymail.com.

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