KANO, Nigeria -- To win two games in a row in a World Cup at any level, something has to go right. It's just that with this American U-17 team, you wouldn't necessarily expect the part of the squad clicking at just the right time to be the defense.
But on Sunday night in Ijebu-Ode, coach Wilmer Cabrera's team rode a back line that has suddenly turned into a youth version of a stone wall, and a solid goalkeeping performance by Earl Edwards, to its second straight 1-0 victory. The win earned the U.S. a spot in the round of 16 of the Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria.
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In reality, the defensive performance was a solid overall team effort, with the midfield and even forwards chipping in to stymie the potent Emirates attack all afternoon long.
"We are very organized, and that makes one goal good enough to win," Cabrera said. "At the next stage, it's necessary only to win. We don't have to win by five goals, only one."
The American defense, which at the outset of the tournament looked like the weakness of a team filled with potent attacking options, has quickly turned into the glue that has held the team's hopes in Nigeria in place. Central defenders Eriq Zavaleta and Jared Watts bent but never broke in facing down the speed and skill of UAE attackers Mohamed Hussain and Fahad Salim. They were ably supported by Tyler Polak and Zachary Herold, who each played another strong game on the wings.
Those performances were enough to erase another ugly finishing show by the Americans, already a tired theme after the group stage. The offensive performance was again exceptional on many levels, with the U.S. dominating possession, but the finishing was just enough to get the job done.
"We are not concerned about the opportunities we have created," Cabrera said. "We have created some very good chances in every game. It has been a little bit difficult, but I think you have to be worried when you don't create chances. At this point, we needed to win 1-0. That proves that we are a strong team."
Forward Jack McInerney tapped in a rebound spilled by UAE goalkeeper Ahmad Shambih in the first half, providing the difference that sent the Americans through in second place in the group, and left the UAE in the midst of a complicated scramble for one of the final third-place spots (one in which they came out on top based on fewer yellow cards earned than opponents Holland and Brazil).
The goalkeeping error that led to the goal marred what was an otherwise sterling performance by Shambih, as the Americans' inability to add to their lead on this night was more the result of a string of excellent saves than poor finishing. After McInerney's goal, the UAE 'keeper stoned Luis Gil, Stefan Jerome, and Alex Shinsky in succession in the closing minutes of the first half, taking away the Americans' chance to blow open the game. Shambih then pulled off another sparkling save on Gil early in the second half, when the midfielder had picked out the top right corner of the net and curled in a goalbound shot.
But the Americans, despite their inability to break out of their goal-scoring funk, were hardly disappointed with Sunday's outing overall.
"We are really pleased with today's performance," Cabrera said. "The play was very good from the kids tonight. They moved the ball around well and created good opportunities. We came to play good football and play a good match, move the ball forward. We were only able to score once, but that one was enough to give us the chance to get to the next round."
Having won two in a row, the U.S. has grabbed some momentum going into a showdown with Italy, the winner of Group F. And it must feel, going forward, that the finishing touch that has deserted it will come around at some point. Even if it doesn't, the defense doesn't seem to be planning on letting too many in on the other end.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
Earl Edwards, GK, 6: Unlike in past games, the big 'keeper had a bit of work to do Sunday, as the Emirates forwards found creative ways to put pressure on the American goal. Edwards was nearly punished midway through the second half when he gave up a long rebound, but the Emirati attacker whiffed on the follow-up shot with the goal gaping.
Eriq Zavaleta, D, 7: The tall defender played his best game yet in Nigeria, easing his way around the field and flawlessly cleaning up attack after attack. He also distributed smoothly out of the back.
Zachary Herold, D, 6.5: Herold was stunned early when he received a blow to the head from an Emirati attacker, but still played a solid game. Many of the most dangerous attacks ended up coming down his side, though he managed to keep pace with speedy attackers Hussain and Marwan Al Saffar.
Jared Watts, D, 6.5: The big man in the middle has really settled down since the first match, when he looked shaky for the first half and was in for part of the blame in Spain's two goals. His composed play alongside Zavaleta in the middle has freed the wingbacks to get into the attack, and gives the entire midfield license to get forward with confidence.
Tyler Polak, D, 6.5: Polak is just plain solid. The UAE tried time and time again, with speedy playmaking forwards, but there's no getting around this guy. He also seldom makes errors passing out of the back.
Marlon Duran, M, 6.5: Duran also deserves a lot of credit for the defensive effort. On a day like today, the U.S. needed a defensive enforcer in the middle of the midfield to break up the Emirates' attacks, and Duran played the role perfectly. The hard-nosed midfielder also kept his giveaways to a minimum.
Nick Palodichuk, M, 5.5: Palodichuk played decently in midfield, and performed his central task of anchoring the middle of the field for long spells. When he got into the attack, he was less effective, although his first-half shot bounced off the 'keeper and led to the U.S. goal.
Luis Gil, M, 6: Most of the Americans' dangerous chances revolved around Gil in one way or another, and his winding dribble and feed opened up space for Palodihuk to take the shot that led to McInerney's goal. But Gil once again sent too many golden chances begging -- he could quite conceivably have scored a hat trick.
Alex Shinsky, F, 6: Shinsky was once again one of the Americans' most dangerous players, making a number of penetrating runs down the left side. His problem is more what to do with the ball after he reaches the end line, and his crossing was ineffective when better last balls could have created a lot of danger.
Jack McInerney, F, 6: McInerney earns this grade on the basis of his timeliness as a goal scorer. His nose for goal should not be underrated, as his contribution putting in the match's loan tally was invaluable. But the striker did precious little more than that, and still has not really put his mark on a game in Nigeria.
Stefan Jerome, F, 6.5: Perhaps a game and a half on the bench woke Jerome up. The speedy attacker gives the American front line an element of pace and creativity that lengthens the field and opens up space for the midfield. It's a shame his finishing doesn't seem to be on -- though he's certainly not alone there.
Will Packwood, MF, 5.5: Plugging in alongside Marlon Duran in his 20-odd minutes, the defensive midfielder didn't do too much to draw attention, which was probably the idea.
Dominick Sarle, F, 6: Sarle played a solid 15 minutes, relieving Shinsky and bringing some speed to the field, first on the left, then the right flank.
Juan Agudelo, F, NR: The NY Red Bull Academy product showed just a dash of his pace during his extra-time addition.
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 email@example.com.