The U20’s advance to the semi-final round of the 2016 U20 WWC with a lucky 2-1 win over Mexico. Sometimes it is better to strike lucky than to dominate a match and the U20’s managed to turn a dominant Mexico performance into a late comeback win. The United States were outshot and outchanced the majority of the match but goals from substitutes Ally Watt and Kelcie Hedge proved to be the winning difference.
French gets it right
Mexico unequivocally dominated the first half of the match; they did everything to the United States but finish the chances they were creating. This story extended into first 20 minutes of the second half culminated in a Maria Sanchez goal off of a free kick just outside of the 18-yard box. Then, in the 68’ Michelle French substituted Jessie Scarpa for Kelcie Hedge and in the 73’ took off Sabrina Flores for Ally Watt. After using the cooling break in the 77’ to regroup down one goal, the United States looked much more active and engaged for the final 15 minutes of the match.
Sometimes substitutions can be a last gasp to right the ship but ultimately don’t amount to much. And sometimes substitutions can make a coach look like an absolute genius. This is a case of the latter. The U20’s needed a spark. For much of the match they looked like they lacked sharpness and impetus in attack. Watt changed that immediately with her pace and determination. Hedge added grit and made her presence in the game known immediately. That work rate was rewarded. Ultimately, it’s a tactical win for a coach that’s often been maligned for her tactical missteps in crucial situations.
Sloppy passing an issue
It cannot be overlooked, especially in a thrilling come from behind win, that there was a reason that the United States fell behind. The team looked sluggish until the cooling break in the second half of the match. The midfield, which has had a tendency to disappear throughout this tournament, was again outplayed by Mexico. Turnovers in dangerous areas led to the U20’s defenders getting pinned back in their own defensive third. Balls meant to start quick transition attacks were overhit and played harmlessly out of bounds.
Some of that can be attributed to the high pressure of Mexico and the fact that this same starting 11 has played in almost every match of the tournament - give or take a player. The conditions in Papua New Guinea have been a factor all tournament and given the earlier start time of this match, the heat was certainly a factor. Or maybe players who’ve been forced to chase and defend for much of this tournament switch off at times. The United States want to play a possession style of soccer but if they can’t string together passes that might be difficult to execute.
Waiting for that next gear
This U20 team is into the semi-final so it seems strange to ponder whether or not they have another gear to show in this tournament. But truthfully, the United States has gotten through to this stage without ever really having a truly impressive match. The closest they’ve come is the match against New Zealand and even then there were some massive questions that still haven’t been answered.
Where’s this vaunted attack spearheaded by Mallory Pugh and supported by the likes of Ashley Sanchez? Other supporting players like Emily Fox and Jessie Scarpa have been touted as key contributors to this potentially potent attack but both have had fairly anonymous tournaments. It just hasn’t really worked out the way it’s been hyped.
But perhaps it’s unfair to blame that entirely on the attacking front. The midfield has been absent and it’s not reasonable to ask the defenders and strikers to pick up that entire load. The absence of Katie Cousins was evident against Mexico, she sat out due to some muscle tightness, and the U20’s missed her ball winning and her ability to start attacks. Against Korea DPR, the United States will need to put together a complete and dominant performance if they’re going to convince anybody they’re true contenders in this tournament. Or maybe they can smash and grab another win, after all, they’ve done it before.