The U.S. Under-17 national team isn't generating much consideration as a real threat to knock off England in Saturday's Under-17 World Cup quarterfinal, but the underdog label doesn't bother U.S. coach John Hackworth all that much. For one, there isn't a team in the World Cup he and his U.S. team knows better than England. Secondly, the underdog label just might offer up the kind of motivation that makes a difference in a rivalry that has been very tightly contested.
"For sure England is the favorite, and are worthy of that," Hackworth told Goal ahead of Saturday's quarterfinal in Goa, India. "They’ve been a good team, have a great record, and have been great in this tournament. But just like with Paraguay (which was unbeaten before the U.S. delivered a 5-0 thumping), I didn’t get why people made us a big underdog against Paraguay. We beat Ghana, one of the best teams in this tournament, and I don’t think we were getting much respect.
"Obviously the Paraguay game gave us a little bit, but that being said, we role into this game and nobody’s giving us a chance and you wouldn’t think we had a chance in hell to win. So we’re going to use that to our advantage."
The Americans face an English side they know all too well, having faced them on four different occasions in the past two years. The results have been as tight as can be, with three matches resulting in draws, and England winning one courtesy of a late goal. Not only have the two teams competed many times, they have also established friendships along the way, having stayed at the same hotels in past competitions. Many of the same players who contested those four previous meetings will be involved in Saturday's quarterfinal, and that familiarity should help the Americans feel comfortable in a pressure-packed match.
"There’s no question we think they’ve been the best team we’ve played throughout this cycle," Hackworth said. "There's a lot of mutual respect between the players. We stayed at the same hotels together in England and they played games together, ping-pong and foosball and all that kind of stuff. We're at the same hotel now in Goa and it's the same way. They give each other high fives walking through the common area.
"It's interesting but there's a mutual respect there because we play similar styles, and we're both kind of stubborn in trying to concentrate on ourselves instead of our opponents," he continued. "It's going to make for an interesting chess match."
England has rolled through the Under-17 World Cup undefeated, having outscored opponents 11-2. A penalty shootout win against Japan after a 0-0 regulation has the English on course to try and match the World Cup winning accomplishment of the Under-20 England team that won a world championship last summer.
It is an England team that plays free-flowing, attacking soccer, but it's a team Hackworth feels can be beaten.
"They look to always find the free player on the field. Their movement off the ball is excellent," Hackworth said. "They do want their players to be comfortable dribbling out of pressure, and they’re good at it, but it’s also risky in a World Cup and it’s something we’re going to try and capitalize on."
The U.S. will go into the match without starting defensive midfielder Chris Goslin, who is suspended due to yellow card accumulation. His absence will force Hackworth to insert a new face in central midfield, be it Akil Watts or Indiana Vassilev.
"Any time you go deep into a tournament like this, you need a deep squad," the U.S. manager said. "Guys are going to have to step up in moments. Akil Watts is a guy who can potentially step in. He played 90 against Paraguay and played very well against a player I thought had been one of the best in the tournament.
"Durkin would be a great option (in the defensive midfield role), and that’s a natural position for him. It’s a natural position for James as well, but we will probably go with a new face there."
Saturday's quarterfinal could provide a signature moment for U.S. star striker Josh Sargent, who has scored two goals in the Under-17 World Cup, a modest total for a player who won the Silver Ball award at the Under-20 World Cup last summer.
Sargent, who has reached a verbal agreement to sign with German Bundesliga side Werder Bremen when he turns 18 in February, will be the focal point of the attack, though hat-trick scorer Timothy Weah and playmaker Andrew Carleton showed against Paraguay that they can also pick up the slack in attack while Sargent does the dirty work.
"(Sargent) does the work even when he doesn’t get the goals," Hackworth said. "That’s the part that I really like about him. He creates the opportunities for his teammates by making unselfish runs off the balls. Our team is a little different than how he was with the U-20s. With the 20s, he was expected to let everyone else do the work and provide him the ball. On our team, we ask him to do a lot of those things."
Hackworth acknowledges that it will take a full team effort to beat a team like England, but admits he is hopeful the big stage will offer Sargent a chance to show off his considerable talent.
"If you’re going to win the really big games, your star players have to lead the way," he said. "(Sargent's) done that with his work ethic, and his ability on both sides of the ball. It would be great if he had one of those breakout moments (against England) because he’s the leader of this group. Both with his talent, his work ethic and the qualities he brings."