(Disclaimer): This piece is my recap on the U.S. Soccer Men’s U-20 national team’s performance at the 2017 CONCACAF Soccer Men’s U-20 Championship. Opinions expressed are my own. For more info and full coverage of the tournament, visit CONCACAF.com.
The United States qualified for the 2017 FIFA Soccer Men’s Under-20 World Cup. To add icing on the cake, the team won its qualifying tournament, the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship, for the first time on Sunday. In a tournament that has sometimes marked the end of American Under-20 World Cup Qualifying campaigns in the past, these rising stars lost just one game, beat Mexico for the first time in thirty one years, and showed resolve prior to the main event in May in South Korea. The continent’s representatives at the Under-20 World Cup will be the U.S., Honduras, Mexico, and Costa Rica.
The U.S. found itself in anxious territory following a 1-0 defeat in its opener vs. Panama. But a turning point came in the second game. Tied 1-1 to Haiti after losing the first game, Brooks Lennon whipped in a corner kick as Haitian goalkeeper Isaac Rouaud dashed towards the center of the box trying to get a hand to the ball. But it bounced off his left hand and hit the ground as Luca de la Torre pounced on the loose ball, giving the U.S. a second unanswered goal and a 2-1 edge. The U.S. proceeded to win that game 4-1, and comfortably beat St. Kitts and Nevis by the same score a few days later to advance to the second stage of competition.
The strength of schedule was bumped up a notch as the team started the second stage against Mexico. But the Americans were again effective on offense, and corner kick taker Brooks Lennon delivered another pivotal pass. On this delivery, Erik Palmer-Brown out jumped Jose de Dios Aguyao and headed the ball toward the low left corner, and Diego Cortes’s clearance wound up in the net. While it looked to me like it could have been an own goal, de la Torre got credited on the score sheet, and his header resulted in a fairly historic goal. The valiant defensive effort conceded few big chances for El Tri, as Mexico was outshot 8-3 and failed to put a shot on goal. This game was the only game of the tournament in which Mexico was shut out, and Palmer-Brown’s goal was the first of just two goals Mexico would give up for the entire tournament.
The emotions ran high for the second game of the second stage with a World Cup berth within sight for the U.S. The Red, White, and Blue opened the scoring in the 18th minute when Austin Trusty evaded defenders in midfield and passed to Eryk Williamson, who fed a through ball to Emmanuel Sabbi, who split the defense and drew the goalkeeper off his line before slotting a low shot into the goal from close range. Williamson scored one of the best goals of the tournament seven minutes later when an opponent cleared a cross into his path. The Maryland Terrapin chested the ball, sprinted into space, and let the ball bounce before blasting a 25-yard shot off that left the ‘keeper helpless. It nailed the left post, and went in for a 2-0 lead. The Salvadorans responded ten minutes later when Josue Rivera breached the U.S. defense on the left wing. He sent a low cross to Marvin Marquez, who shot the ball to the low right post, where U.S. ‘keeper Jonathan Klinsmann could only get a hand to it: 2-1. There were eleven bookings in this game, including two red cards in the 89th minute after American Sebastián Saucedo flung his leg at Salvadoran Marcos Rodríguez, who whacked Saucedo in the face in retaliation. But shortly thereafter, the physical second half came to a close, and the Americans clinched a U-20 World Cup berth with the 2-1 win.
The final saw the U.S. pitted against Honduras, with both teams guaranteed spots in the U-20 World Cup. The U.S. offense didn’t lose a step, creating numerous opportunities in the first half and frequently operating in a lot of open space near midfield. However, this game didn’t produce any goals after ninety minutes of play, and the competition format calls for a penalty kick shootout. The first seven shots all resulted in goals, but Rembrandt Flores skied his penalty kick at the end of the fourth round, giving the U.S. a 4-3 lead going into the fifth round and a chance to win the title with a goal. Danny Acosta won a psychological battle and slotted the winning penalty kick low to the center of the goal.
The U.S. will play at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in South Korea in May, and it will do so having already made a historic qualifying run. We shall see what the squad looks like at that tournament and if the Americans can replicate this success at that time.