KADUNA, Nigeria -- With the American team eliminated from the FIFA U-17 World Cup after a 2-1 loss to Italy, an evaluation of the team's performance -- in their knockout round match Wednesday with Italy and in the tournament in general -- is really a matter of recognizing that there are two sides to every coin.
On one hand, maybe the U.S. U-17 team never played to their full potential in Nigeria. They demonstrated plenty of skill and flair, and outpossessed all their opponents, but couldn't quite put all the pieces together. On the other hand, the team left little evidence that they could do better, as chance after chance to prove their quality on the international stage slipped away over 10 days.
"Italy won; they deserve it," coach Wilmer Cabrera said of this match, the fourth in a row in which his team managed a single goal from multiple chances to score. "They are clinical to finish the opportunities that they had. They had two, three opportunities and they put the ball in the net. For us throughout the competition it's been difficult to put the ball in the net. So now we have to leave the tournament."
As has become a custom for them here in Nigeria, the Americans wasted a number of chances in this quarterfinal matchup in Kaduna -- including a penalty kick early in the first half -- on their way to losing to an Italian side stocked by players affiliated with Serie A clubs, who knew exactly how to do everything they had to in securing a 2-1 victory and moving on to the quarterfinals.
On this day, the U.S. had its best opportunity in the early going, when the Americans were awarded a penalty kick after Italian defender Federico Mannini -- alone in the box -- handled a throw-in from a teammate. But Jack McInerney was unable to get the resulting shot past goalkeeper Francesco Bardi. That turn of events took the wind out of the American sails, and things went downhill from there.
After a series of half chances for the Europeans, Italy took the lead through AC Milan starlet Giacomo Beretta on the half-hour mark, and the Americans were forced to chase the game against a resolute Italian defense. Cabrera's team did little to help themselves in a subpar first half replete with turnovers in the midfield that sent the Italians off on the counter, along with some shaky play on the back line.
However, the second half was a different story, as the U.S. managed to turn things around quickly. After McInerney saw another point-blank attempt pushed onto the bar by Bardi, Nick Palodichuk equalized off a corner kick six minutes into the half.
"We got ripped apart in the locker room," McInerney said. "We figured out what we needed to do to fix it, and came out with the attitude that this could be our last 45 minutes, and came out and played better. But it was just one of those days. It wasn't my day."
The Americans outplayed the Italians for long stretches but couldn't do the little things needed to defeat a team that was every bit as good as they were technically and tactically. Just a few minutes after the U.S. had evened the match, it gave the Italians a little too much space in back, and forward Pietro Iemmello took advantage from 25 yards, for what would be the deciding strike.
The Americans spent the rest of the game elaborating on the same old theme of wasted opportunities, even with five forwards on the field in the final minutes. For the final half hour, they showed one more glimpse of what could have been, controlling the tempo and playing with a lot of flair, as they have throughout the tournament.
"The American team is a very strong team, with technically impressive players in the attack," Italian coach Pasquale Salerno said. "They complicated the game for us greatly, and I'm really happy to have been able to get away with the victory. If we had to play 30 minutes more, we would likely have lost."
So with another American youth team headed home from a World Cup at a relatively early stage, despite some praise and positive developments along the way, is the glass half full, or half empty?
The team seems to have a number of players with bright futures, and if this attacking style is a sign of things to come, perhaps this generation could still be the first in a renaissance of American soccer. Coach Cabrera, at least, is among the believers.
"I leave the tournament proud of my kids, because they respect the game," said Cabrera. "Everywhere we went, we tried to play, to put the ball on the ground, create several options. We showed that personality. So this is a step up, but obviously the difference in this sport is when you score goals, and we couldn't make the difference."
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
Earl Edwards, GK, 5.5 -- The future UCLA Bruin played another good game in the back and stoned Baretta on a second-half breakaway.
Zachary Herold, D, 4.5 -- The right back's play didn't measure up to his previous performances in Nigeria. Herold had trouble getting into the attack and gave away the ball frequently in dangerous areas of the field. Still, his work rate was high, and the back four was often outnumbered by the Italian attackers, left out to dry by the midfield's failure to track back.
Eriq Zavaleta, D, 4 -- Zavaleta just wasn't up to the task against the Italians on this day. The Indiana native was overpowered and outrun by the Italian front line time after time, and when he wasn't committing fouls, he spent much of his day chasing the Italian forwards or the ball, before being sent off late.
Jared Watts, D, 4 -- Watts was a little better than Zavaleta but also found himself in trouble when faced with the speed and precision of the Italian attack. Watts also failed to distribute as well out of the back as he had in previous games, giving Italy chances to come forward in numbers.
Tyler Polak, D, 6 -- Polak played well, even against the technical Italian attack, and still got forward with poise. He was not quite as sharp as he had been the rest of the competition, but clearly Polak was the standout in Nigeria for the Americans on the back line, if not the whole team.
Marlon Duran, M, 6.5 -- If it weren't for Duran, the final score line would have been much more lopsided. The Texas native was the only American midfielder consistently interested in playing defense against the counter-attacking Italians. Nor was Duran guilty of the large number of turnovers in midfield that plagued his teammates.
Nick Palodichuk, M, 5 -- The midfielder didn't do enough on either side of the ball, aside from his well-taken goal. The back four could have used his cover next to Duran in the first half, and by the second half he was too tired to be very effective on offense, either.
Luis Gil, M, 6 -- As usual, Gil made some spectacular plays, and did well taking on the Italian defenders. But he never managed to get himself into position to finish, nor did he set up his teammates as frequently as he has in the past.
Alex Shinsky, F, 5.5 -- The left winger managed to get by the Italian defense on numerous occasions on the dribble, but once again failed to turn those incursions into anything too dangerous, and was physically dominated by the large Italian defenders. Shinsky also tired badly midway through the second half, becoming ineffective.
Jack McInerney, F, 4 -- Today was the day for McInerney to show why he has been so highly rated. He had two golden opportunities to put the Americans on the scoreboard -- including the pivotal penalty shot -- and he failed to convert both times.
Stefan Jerome, F, 6 -- The speedy forward put in a streaky performance, making a number of good runs and beating the Italians with his speed. He also looked interested in helping out by tracking back, though he disappeared for long spells in the first half.
Dominick Sarle, F, 6.5 -- Sarle made a tangible impact on the game in his time on the field, streaking up and down the right flank and doing his best to get the ball into the area, which by the late second half was full of Italian defenders.
Victor Chavez, MF, 3.5 -- Chavez got all that any late sub could ask for -- a golden opportunity to make a difference by scoring. But after getting into the box alone, he shanked his shot well wide.
Juan Agudelo, F, 6 -- Agudelo took advantage of his 10 minutes on the pitch, running nonstop, tackling and tracking back on defense, all while trying to add numbers to the attack.
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.