U.S. U-20 side left to lick wounds after failing to make World Cup
It was supposed to be the strongest U.S. Under-20 national team in history, but instead it was just another underachieving American youth team left with unfulfilled expectations and a suddenly empty summer where a dream World Cup run was once considered a possibility.
Facing Guatemala in a winner-take-all CONCACAF Under-20 Championship quarterfinal, the United States squandered chances, defended poorly and let an underdog take its ticket to this summer’s Under-20 World Cup in Colombia. Guatemala qualified for its first Under-20 World Cup by defeating the United States, 2-1 on Wednesday night.
The loss eliminated the United States from World Cup contention and now, instead of visions of a deep World Cup run, the United States is left to ponder what went wrong.
Playing in front of a hostile, though not exactly large pro-Guatemala crowd in Guatemala City, the United States missed countless chances to silence the home fans but missed every first-half opportunity. Guatemala played its most inspired game of the CONCACAF Tournament, pushing the normally-stingy U.S. defense for long stretches of the match.
Guatemala opened the scoring in the 33rd minute when Gerson Lima exploited lax set-piece defending to convert an unmarked header to make the score 1-0. The United States didn’t find an equalizer until the 66th minute, when Conor Doyle converted a beautiful pass from Amobi Okugo.
That goal looked as though it might give the United States the spark it needed to win as expected, but that sensation lasted just three minutes as Henry Lopez capitalized on poor defending from Gale Agbossoumonde to score the eventual game winner in the 69th minute.
The loss snapped a streak of seven consecutive Under-20 World Cup appearances by the United States, a streak dating back to 1995.
So how did a team that blew away its first two opponents of the CONCACAF Under-20 Championships suddenly struggle against Guatemala? Losing forward Bobby Wood to an injury in the group stage was a big blow, but the Americans simply wasted scoring chances and defended poorly against a Guatemala side that capitalized in American mistakes.
Gale Agbossoumonde also struggled for much of the match and appeared to be favoring his leg after being injured early in the first half.
The U.S. Under-20 team was seen as a real threat to make a deep World Cup run, with a squad featuring mostly professional players, and some of the brightest young talents in the U.S. pipeline. The forward trio of Joseph Gyau, Wood and Conor Doyle was expected to shine in Colombia.
Blame for the team’s failed World Cup bid will fall on beleaguered head coach Thomas Rongen, who has done an excellent job of identifying new prospects, but who followed up a disappointing tournament showing in the 2009 Under-20 World Cup with failing to make the event at all.
U.S. Soccer officials will have to decide whether the work Rongen has done to attract some new prospects to the national team, such as German-Born midfielder Fabian Hurzeler, is enough to counter what must be seen as disappointing on-field results by the U.S. Under-20 team.
Ironically enough, Rongen has been one of the leading voices describing the current U.S. Under-20 team as one of the most talented in the program’s history, a far cry from a 2009 edition that featured few professionals and still leaned heavily on college players.
While Rongen will shoulder his share of the blame, one has to wonder just how much importance U.S. Soccer put on the qualifying tournament. New York Red Bulls striker Juan Agudelo was left off the Under-20 qualifying roster and instead spent time with the U.S. Olympic team, playing in the recent friendlies against Argentina and Paraguay.
The United States could certainly have used Agudelo on Wednesday night, when poor finishing plagued the team all night.
The shocking loss brought back memories of U.S. Soccer’s other most recent Youth National Team failing, when the U.S. Under-23 team failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics. That team, which included Landon Donovan, lost in a blowout vs. Mexico.
Now, instead of preparing for a World Cup this summer, the collection of Under-20 stars will have to focus on their club teams this summer, with the next step on the national team front will be preparing the squad for Olympic qualifying next year.
After the debacle of seeing the Under-20 team not qualify for the World Cup, the United States will need to qualify for the Olympics in impressive fashion to restore some of the faith that has been lost in the U.S. youth national team program after Wednesday night’s disastrous defeat.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.