American soccer fans were in desperate need of something to cheer them up in the wake of last week's World Cup qualifying disaster, and it came in the form of a big win by a promising group that just might help restore some of the faith lost in Trinidad & Tobago.
The U.S. Under-17 national team demolished previously unbeaten Paraguay, 5-0, to advance to the quarterfinals of the U-17 World Cup. In a match Paraguay was considered the favorite it was the Americans who overwhelmed the South Americans, with several star performances leading the way.
U-17 coach Jack Hackworth sent a message to his players, and they entered the match knowing they were playing for an entire nation.
“We talked about it internally and I told these guys that the responsibility of doing something for U.S. Soccer fell on them," Hackworth said. "Hopefully with this performance tonight we have shown the world we are a footballing nation developing many superstars of tomorrow."
This U.S. team was seen by some as a one-man band, with U-20 World Cup standout Josh Sargent considered the unquestioned star, but Monday showed the wealth of talent in Hackworth's squad. Timothy Weah, son of former AC Milan star and newly minted Liberian president George Weah, scored a hat trick while Atlanta United midfielder Andrew Carleton impressed in a playmaking role, helping set up multiple goals as he shredded Paraguay's defense with perfect passes.
The rout came in the second half, but the seeds for the victory were planted in the first half, with the U.S. defense standing firm against a dangerous Paraguay attack that put pressure on early but never broke through.
D.C. United's Chris Durkin and New York City FC's James Sands played excellently as a center back tandem, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact neither is a central defender by trade (both are better suited as defensive midfielders). It was their work in the middle that helped cut out several Paraguayan threats in the first 25 minutes of the match, when the U.S. turned the ball over too frequently and Paraguay looked primed for an early goal that might have set the stage for a completely different result.
That Paraguay goal never came, though, and instead it was Weah's opener in the 19th minute that set the tone. The quick-strike counter began with Sargent chesting the ball down to Carleton, who hit a perfectly weighted pass to Ayo Akinola down the right wing. Akinola then struck a pass to a streaking Weah to shock Paraguay.
"Today, U.S. were the better team," Paraguay coach Gustavo Morinigo said. "After the first goal, the boys became very nervous. It was going really well in the opening stages."
Weah's second goal was a world-class stunner, an effortless blast from the top left corner of the penalty area that had to remind some people of his father's goal-scoring heroics. That goal seemed to deflate Paraguay and it definitely inspired the U.S. attack, which proceeded to dismantle the South Americans, with Carleton, Sargent, Weah and Akinola finding an unstoppable rhythm against a beaten foe.
It will be inevitable that American fans overreact to Monday's blowout win. You can't really blame them considering the desperately depressing aftermath of the World Cup qualifying failure, but the reality is this team finds itself facing an opportunity like no U-17 side before it. American fans are starving for something to give them hope, and as much as it probably isn't all that fair to pin a nation's soccer hopes on a U-17 team, the reality is a run to the semifinals or final would offer some much-needed therapy.
There is also the hunger to see the players who just might be a part of the next U.S. World Cup team in 2022. There is a good chance at least a couple of the players on this U-17 team could be a part of a U.S. team in Qatar (assuming, of course, the U.S. qualifies). That said, five years is a long time, so it's probably wiser to simply enjoy watching this U-17 team play rather than trying to project them as World Cup saviors.
The U.S. U-17s return to action Saturday in the quarterfinals, against the winner of Tuesday's England-Japan round of 16 clash. Expectations will be heightened considerably in the quarterfinals, and after being underdogs in the round of 16, the Americans might now be seen as favorites.
At least they will be to U.S. fans who have suddenly found a ray of sunshine after last week's nightmare proceedings in Trinidad & Tobago.