The U.S. Under-17 national team went into Saturday's World Cup quarterfinal against England regarded as a clear-cut underdog, and the unbeaten Three Lions showed why, capitalizing on a timid start by the Americans to send them home.
A pair of early goals by England punished a U.S. squad that quite frankly looked a little scared in the opening minutes. That was a surprise given how familiar the Americans were with England, but it was enough to give the favorites an early edge they took full advantage of. Liverpool prospect Rhian Brewster scored a pair of goals in the first 14 minutes, punishing the Americans for some lax defending and a bad turnover.
"I thought our team was ready to step up to the challenge, but in the first 20 minutes we were just so tentative," U.S. coach John Hackworth said. "I thought we fought back, to be fair. If we got one when it was 2-0, I thought it would have been a different game."
Unfortunately, that first-half response never came from the U.S. While the English finished chances, the Americans failed to convert a flurry of good looks at goal, even after finding a rhythm after the 20th minute. Chances came but the U.S. couldn't finish any of them, even after continuing to find looks in the second half. England's seemingly inevitable third goal came in the 64th minute, effectively sealing the U.S. team's fate on a night when it was going to take a special performance to beat an in-form opponent.
Hackworth said Friday that big games call for big performances from star players, and there simply weren't enough of them from the U.S. team's stars. Chris Durkin was excellent yet again in central defense, and when he moved into the midfield, but the vaunted U.S. attack saw too many players underwhelm. Timothy Weah and Andrew Carleton came nowhere close to matching their outstanding displays against Paraguay in the round of 16, while Ayo Akinola missed a plethora of opportunities at the end of what was largely a disappointing tournament for him.
The 4-1 final does little to illustrate just how many chances the Americans were able to create, but it does justice to the gulf in overall quality we saw on the day. The English were more composed, cleaner on the ball, better finishers and significantly better in the defending and goalkeeping categories. As much as the two teams may have played four tightly contested matches against each other in the past two years (including three draws), only one of the teams came anywhere close to playing to its full potential.
"We played some really good football," Hackworth said. "We came against one of the best teams in the world tonight. We had some good moments. At the same time, the goalkeeper (Curtis Anderson) for England was up to the task. We also didn't start the game in the right way."
As painful as the loss was, it shouldn't completely overshadow what was an encouraging tournament for the U.S. team, and for American fans desperate to see signs of hope in the wake of the senior national team's World Cup qualifying failure. As much as this U.S. U-17 side ultimately paid the price for lacking true center backs — which led to its best defensive midfield options (Durkin and James Sands) having to play in central defense — there were several players who showed real potential.
Sargent provided more evidence to support the idea he is a special talent, while Durkin stamped his name on the radar of European clubs that will love his poise and well-rounded game. Weah, Carleton and Akinola are far away from being first-team threats on the club level, but they all need to find minutes as soon as possible to round out their games and help them become more consistent. Sands showed why New York City FC is so high on him, but he too must head into 2018 with a plan to earn first-team minutes, even if that means going out on loan. The same holds true for Atlanta United midfielder Chris Goslin.
Of course, the road between this U-17 World Cup and the senior national team is a long one, and players who seem like can't-miss prospects must now do the actual work to develop into good pros. As much fun as it might be to project this U.S. U-17 team's stars into senior national team roles, we must remember that history is littered with the names of players who never successfully navigated the road from U-17 standout to senior team star.
Perhaps it was unfair to put too much pressure on this U.S. U-17 team, which found itself in the unlikely role of being the "Great American Hope" after the senior squad failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. American fans wanted so badly for this team to come together and go on a run. Instead, they were left with the realization that England's youngsters are much better, and after winning the U-20 World Cup last summer, facing a much brighter future than the U.S.
That being said, Saturday's loss doesn't make the tournament a failure for the U.S. — far from it. England is clearly one of the favorites to win the U-17 World Cup, and the wins the U.S. posted against Ghana and Paraguay showed the quality this collection of young Americans has. Even Saturday's loss offered glimpses, though the good moments were clearly outnumbered by the bad ones.
Fans can take some solace in knowing that the U.S. is one of only two countries (England being the other) to send teams to the quarterfinals of both the U-17 and U-20 World Cups in 2017. Yes, it is a small consolation, but after the senior national team's recent debacle, American fans will take what they can get.