USA’s U-20 World Cup run ends with quarterfinal loss to North Korea in PK’s

USA's Mallory Pugh (L) beats North Korea's Choe Sol Gyong on the wing to set up her side's lone goal in the first half.  

Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

North Korea eliminated the United States women’s national team from the U-20 Women’s World Cup on Saturday night, 3-1 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the quarterfinal game in Toronto. Rim Se Ok scored the winning kick in the tiebreaker after the USA had their first three penalty kicks saved by Kim Chol Ok.

North Korea will now face the winner of the Nigeria-New Zealand game to be played on Sunday in the semifinals. The United States will head home early after what was a very poor showing.

The Americans did not deserve to advance, having been out-played and out-thought throughout the entire match. In truth, they scraped into this game after some poor early play on the final day of group play, but rarely looked a cohesive and potent unit.

In the end, it was surprise that the Americans leapt out to an early lead in this match — and made it look quite easy in doing so. Only six minutes in, young Mallory Pugh beat Choe Sol Gyong wide right, and then got a bit of a lucky bounce that carried the ball almost to the endline. Pugh turned smartly to center the ball and Makenzy Doniak was there to receive it and shoot. Doniak’s first attempt was blocked but the rebound fell right back to her, and she put the ball right through keeper Chol Ok into the back of the net.

That was a dream start for the Americans, who had looked threatening right from the kickoff. But after the goal, the tide slowly, inexorably turned in the favor of the North Koreans. Part of the problem was a complete absence of tactics on the part of the young American women. They regressed to what has become a particularly toxic habit, a belief that they can out-run and out-muscle all comers, and that that will cover up a basic lack of technical acumen.

The Koreans — quite intelligently — sensed this early, and forced the game into a stop-start pattern that took away the USA’s speed. Without that weapon, the Americans found themselves stranded. With an inability to hold on to the ball, American keeper Kateland Rowland soon found herself the busier, with Jon So Yon sending a free kick just skidding over her bar, and forced to play cleanup on several forays from Ri Un Sim.

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Lindsey Horan, by far the USA’s best player, was seen only in glimpses, smartly ushered away from the ball for almost the entire game. Her biggest contribution came with eight minutes to play when she was fouled, and then sent her free kick inches wide of the far post. There was no question she was the best player on the field. What was shocking is that her teammates never could put her in a position to make an impact on the match. That’s a disturbing commentary on this young American side, and it’s something the coaching staff will have to address going forward.

After the break, with the Americans foundering, North Korea would finally get their due, with So Yon sinking a penalty kick to level matters up barely ten minutes into the half. The USA had coughed the ball up at midfield, and then Ri Hyang Sim had her cross handled by Stephanie Amack. Referee Bibiana Steinhaus immediately pointed to the spot, and while Rowland got a hand to it, it was a well-taken kick, and moreover, a wholly deserved goal.

Chances were few and far between after that, with the best look for the Americans coming in the 70th minute when Doniak and Pugh combined, only to see the youngster cannon her volley well over the bar. When the whistle blew, and extra-time beckoned, the game had become quite stale indeed.

Nothing happened in the additional half hour to merit mention — in truth, Steinhaus could have picked up the ball and gone right to penalties and fans would have been just as well served.

In the shootout, the Americans were simply dreadful. Chol Ok faced three poor attempts, and easily stopped them all. Horan, Savannah Jordan and Rose Lavelle looked as if the pressure had gotten to them, all putting their shots in easy reach. In contrast, Rowland did manage to save one, a poor take from Choe Yun Gyong, but it was too little, too late.