Visions of a painful night in Guatemala City two years ago emerged when Canada midfielder Dylan Carreiro lashed home from distance to open the scoring on Tuesday night.
On that fateful evening, the heavily favored United States fell to the home side in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship and missed out on a chance to play in the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Carreiro’s early salvo – even though engineered out of nothing in a match with little in it at that time – stoked the qualms inherent in this do-or-die situation.
The doubts did not last for long as this fresh crop of players erased those fears quickly, responded to their plight emphatically and ultimately secured a 4-2 victory to claim a berth in the World Cup.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” United States coach Tab Ramos said. “And, at the same time, we found ourselves behind. I think what we have done as a coaching staff is to give them the confidence to have the ball. I think they felt the responsibility to take the game and move on from there. I think it actually helped us.”
By just about every measure, the first goal sparked the Americans to life. Instead of buckling under the strain of falling behind or floundering to exploit the space ceded by the Canadians, the US players accepted responsibility for the state of affairs and rectified the situation with their endeavor and their tactical intelligence. Three goals without reply before halftime – including Wil Trapp’s critical third moments before the halftime whistle – turned the match completely.
Once again, profitable lines of inquiry emerged when the Americans recognized their advantage on the left side of the field and used the edge accordingly. Daniel Cuevas exploited the overwhelmed Jon Dollery to provide the service for Luis Gil’s equalizer. Mario Rodriguez embarked on a clever run into space to set up Jose Villarreal’s second. And then Cuevas somehow navigated his way out of trouble along the sideline to win the corner that led to Trapp’s deflected drive from distance.
“I think, tonight, [the first goal] just woke us up a little bit,” Trapp said. “You could see it on the field. We had three goals right after they scored. It was the response we needed and it was the response we got.”
The questions prompted by two unconvincing group displays and the 2-1 defeat suffered to these same opponents in Marbella, Spain in October dissipated at that point. After mustering that sort of reply before halftime and reinforcing its improvement from match to match in this competition, the United States showed it possessed the tools to render those concerns irrelevant on this night.
Despite a few second half concerns, the US met that standard and furthered its broader objectives. The entire affair – a tense match that included an early deficit, a couple of nervous moments even after Villarreal notched his second and the US fourth nine minutes into the second half and a scrappy conclusion – provided the riposte required after the failure at this stage two years ago and supplied a meaningful step forward for the program.
As Canada coach Nick Dasovic wistfully noted after the match, the victory presents the opportunity for these young players to continue their development with five more competitive matches over the next few months. Those encounters offer precious opportunities to turn the instant success enjoyed in this tournament into more meaningful development over the long-term. And the US program needs every opportunity it can find to nurture the players as it attempts to expand the player pool and hone the technical abilities of players expected to contribute in some fashion over the next decade.
“It gives us hope,” Gil said as he pondered the meaning of this victory. “It gives other players the feeling that we’re still in it and US soccer is growing.”
The extent of that growth remains subject to intense debate in the wake of recent failures at the youth level. One successful night in Puebla will not erase the concerns created by the disappointment suffered through in Guatemala City two years ago or the failure to qualify for the Olympics on home soil last year. The continued focus on youth development structures underscores the recognized need to cultivate players effectively and shepherd them through the system properly. And the fact that all four goals came from Major League Soccer players hints that at least some of those measures are yielding modest dividends right now.
For now, those global concerns and the implications of this success pale in importance to the result achieved. After falling at this stage two years ago, the United States could not afford a similar setback in this tournament. With the necessary result now in hand, Ramos and his players can ignore the burdens created by the painful past and prepare for the challenges the lay ahead.