In conversation this past Sunday with a friend who is an incurable optimist about US soccer, even he had little positive to say about the American squad after their poor opening match against Germany in the U-20 World Cup.
Yet he hadn't given up on the team.
"They'll get better," he insisted.
I was amused at his faith. "What exactly did you see in the match that leads you to think they have the potential to improve much?"
He shrugged. "Well, they couldn't really be much worse, could they? Besides, it's the USA's pattern to bounce back after a tough loss. Look at the 2006 World Cup - that team lost the first game 3-0, too, then bounced back to tie the eventual champions, Italy?"
I raised an eyebrow. "You're using the 2006 World Cup, when the USA didn't get out of their group, as a positive example? I guess in a way they are - these guys have yet to score. They could finish dead last and not score or draw a game the whole tournament. "
In the first half versus Cameroon, the USA squad honestly seemed headed in that direction. Despite the numerous roster changes coach Thomas Rongen made, the USA still had that hesitancy in execution that indicated nervous players who lack confidence in themselves.
The hustle, however, that has characterized many US teams, was still evident. It helped break down a Cameroon squad that was perhaps already thinking about the halftime break, not closing out the final few seconds before the whistle blew.
The whole goal was effort and perseverance. Danny Cruz did well to shield the ball and tempt Cameroon into a foul. Dilly Duka stepped up to send a quality kick to the head of Ike Opara, whose header attempt was saved by the goalkeeper.
A rebound, however, gave Tony Taylor a bit of a chance, and he swooped in, collected the ball, then turned and fired a low pass to Bryan Arguez.
Arguez, despite being carried on the roster for the USA in the U-20 tournament in 2007, wasn't even supposed to be in Egypt. He had not been named to the initial roster. Only an injury which forced out Sam Garza opened up a slot for Arguez. The midfielder made sure not to waste it his chance, smashing the ball into the roof of the net.
The hope that goal gave his USA teammates was clearly evident, as the Americans began to play better, with motivation, energy and improved tactical play.
A lot of the top chances were created by Duka, who had been mentioned in the earlier match on the Spanish broadcast. As Duka entered the game, with the US already down by multiple goals, one of the announcers mentioned that his wife had insisted that Duka would be the Man of the Match and score an impressive goal.
As a fellow Rutgers alum, she apparently had great faith in the Scarlet Knights, but that belief only got her gentle mockery on the broadcast as Germany wrapped up a 3-0 victory over the US.
"Clearly, she doesn't know soccer," said the other announcer. "Duka has shown nothing in this match."
Duka was the architect of the second US goal versus Cameroon, leading the breakaway before dropping off a pass so pretty and perfect that Taylor was left with the easiest of finishes into the net.
Then Duka added a third goal - an impudent, inspired looping shot that dipped over the goalkeeper and into the side netting.
"The goal of the tournament!" The announcer said in awe.
I was waiting for him to admit that his wife was right in the prediction, just a bit off in which game. He didn't, of course, at least not in public.
I won't be so stingy, though. I'll admit that I've been wrong about this U-20 team. I'd been terribly skeptical of the logic that without individually brilliant players, this squad could have any impact on the tournament.
Yet just as steel becomes stronger in a fire, the U-20 USA has shown that together, they are as tough as any team out there. Certain players are also emerging as talents to contend with on the big stage.
"These games here will be a little bit of a telling tale about which players can step up now to this highest level," Rongen noted exclusively to Goal.com before the tournament kicked off. "We’ve played in some tournaments, we’ve been through qualifying, we did well again as a collective unit. Maybe this tournament we’ll all of the sudden see two or three guys that will really carry the team, that become important players for this team."
Thomas Rongen, USA U-20 coach | Rongen believed in the strength of his squad as a unit
Specific elements were impressive beyond the players who notched goals. Brian Perk's steadiness in goal and his booming kicks to create chances in the opposing half, were crucial. Jared Jeffrey's possession skills were quality and his passing helped set up the final tally that put the USA in second place in the group on goal differential.
"Against good competition on the highest level, at the World Cup level with the pressure that comes along, a lot of times that’s where the next generation of youth stars are born and hopefully we’ll see some of the star players in our group excel," Rongen said.
After the Germany match, I was thinking, "What star players?"
Now, I'll admit, the stars are there, and may shine even brighter in the future. This young USA squad may not advance out of their tough group, but they will go down swinging. Therefore, I was wrong to write the U-20s off so quickly.
The incurable optimist and the alumni prognosticator - well, sometimes, despite the odds, they're right.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America
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