A sampling of U.S. soccer fans and pundits throughout the final hour of the U.S. Under-20 men's national team's match against Haiti in the CONCACAF U-20 tournament Monday night signaled one common theme: Debacle.
After all, for large stretches of the CONCACAF U-20 championship opening game, upstart Haiti -- yes, island nation Haiti, which is less populated than Ohio -- had its way on the ball, by-and-large shredded the U.S. back line with its pace and ball skills and had two golden chances to score killer goals in the second half.
Just one thing, though. The Americans won.
There's no sugarcoating it. The 2-1 U.S. victory in Puebla, Mexico, was not pretty nor was it encouraging for a team with high hopes. Aside from the dynamic Daniel Cuevas, there were few redeeming individual performances, and instead there are plenty of tactical and personnel questions for Tab Ramos and his coaching staff to sort through prior to Friday's encounter with Costa Rica.
The World Cup qualifying tournament is essentially a pass or fail exam, though, a venture with only one acceptable outcome. The U.S. took care of business Monday, and in the forgiving group format where two of three teams in each group advance to the all-important quarterfinal round -- where the four winners cement berths in this summer's U-20 World Cup in Turkey -- the Americans are in a fine position heading into the next match.
Perhaps the USA underestimated Haiti. Perhaps Haiti's U-20s are way better than the inevitable presumption that they would be pushovers. Perhaps it was a case of tournament-opening jitters and cobwebs. Or perhaps this assembled USA group of youth talent was misused or is sorely missing the likes of professionals Marc Pelosi, Will Packwood, Omar Salgado, Walker Zimmerman and John Anthony Brooks, who were either injured or not made available for the tournament.
Regardless, this crew has one charge: Qualify for this summer's competition. The last wave of Under-20 players followed up their massive failure to qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup by failing to qualify for this past summer's Olympics. Breeding failure among the next generation of U.S. international talent is a recipe for disaster and cannot be an option when considering the aging state of the senior national team. This group has to qualify in order to carry some semblance of accomplishment through its growth and maturation over the next decade, in addition to bringing a degree of validation to the state of the U.S. youth program during the Jurgen Klinsmann era.
In addition to that, Mexico's success on the youth level -- winning 2012 Olympic gold and the 2011 U-17 World Cup and finishing third at the 2011 U-20 World Cup -- has exponentially raised the level of expecations for El Tri's U.S. counterparts, whether that pressure is fairly deserved or not.
Getting to Turkey requires, at the bare minimum, two wins. One is already in the bag. The U.S. can secure its place in the quarterfinals before it even takes to the field again, as long as favored Costa Rica defeats Haiti on Wednesday. Otherwise, a draw with Los Ticos would be good enough to have the U.S. bracing for a meeting with either Canada, Nicaragua or Cuba in the quarterfinals -- against all of whom the U.S. would be favored to emerge victorious (Canada would be considered the toughest opponent of the three, but if Haiti giving the U.S. all it could handle wasn't enough evidence, then the Canadians' 2-1 loss to underdog Cuba Monday is a prime example that nothing in this competition is a given).
Unlike the last U-20 cycle, the U.S. won't have to face the tournament host in hostile territory in the quarterfinals, meaning it can avoid a potential repeat of the Gore in Guatemala. A meeting with region favorite and this year's host, Mexico, won't be possible until the final, where the result is important for bragging rights, but ultimately little else.
Yes, it would have been much more desirable and pleasing for U.S. fans had the U-20s routed Haiti and had the look of a prepared juggernaut, and against a higher-class opponent, a better overall showing would have been required. Instead of a knee-jerk overreaction to a shaky performance, though, take perspective and the big picture into account. The U.S. U-20s are on a quest to reach the World Cup, and no matter how it looked, Monday's effort was a progressive step in getting there.