The United States U20’s fell to a superior Korea DPR 2-1 in the semi-final round of the 2016 U20 Women’s World Cup. This United States team started on the front foot and from the outset looked like perhaps this would be their game. But it didn’t take long for Korea DPR to impose their impressive possession style and take over the match from the hapless Americans. Korea DPR outshot the U20’s, held a possession advantage over the U20’s, and quite simply were the better team. Natalie Jacob’s equalizer in the 89’ extended this match to extra time but the result ultimately went to the team who deserved it.
The tactics were all wrong
Against Mexico, Michelle French didn’t get her initial tactics right but the substitutions made an impact and they were able to score two late goals to win the game. However, it was clear despite the quarterfinal win that something wasn’t quite right with this United States team. Something had to give if they were going to make it past Korea DPR. Unfortunately, French attempted to diagnose the problem and came up woefully wanting.
There’s a common saying: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Perhaps French should have applied that sage wisdom to the composition of her back four. The only consistently positive thing you could praise about this U20 team not named Mallory Pugh. So, for whatever reason, French takes the exceptionally talented left back Ellie Jean and moves her to right midfield. Jean, who had been an impact player through the whole tournament, made little impact before she was subbed off for Kelcie Hedge in the 71’. Even more painful considering the eventual winning goal for Korea DPR exploited Jean’s vacated left flank where she’d been so commanding throughout the tournament.
The substitutions in this match showed that when it matters French is not a solutions coach. She can’t look at a match and diagnose what’s wrong with it. Taking off Jean instead of shifting her to left back was a headscratcher. And even though Katie Cousins gave up the penalty kick, taking her off was pretty much the end of any hope that the United States had of commanding the midfield. Things were clearly not working as they really haven’t been working for this entire tournament. French said the right things before this match but when it came to execution, much like her squad, she was woefully lacking.
Back to basics
Looking back on this entire U20 WWC, it’s hard to pinpoint the moment where the red flags should have started waving. In retrospect, perhaps from the very first match against France where the United States chased and chased and escaped with a point that was less to do with their organization and more to do with a profligate France team. The New Zealand result sated restless fans for a moment and there was the thought that maybe, just maybe, this was the beginning of something beautiful. Sure it wasn’t as shiny or polished as United States fans have grown accustomed to at all levels but it was a step in the right direction and surely they’d clean a few things up and start to click.
Maybe we should have realized earlier that the problem wasn’t that they weren’t clicking but that there was nothing to click. For all of the time that these players have spent training and traveling with club teams and with the development program, they don’t have the basics. You can’t pinpoint a single thing that this team truly excels at. That doesn’t mean that there’s not good players on this squad that will go on to have senior level careers. There are and they will. And maybe that’s the true measure of a youth program, the players it produces. But if the measure of a youth program is results and how the youth squads play then it’s back to what I sincerely hope is a huge drawing board.
Pugh is not enough
Mallory Pugh is a very good player, that’s not a groundbreaking statement. Mallory Pugh cannot and never will be 11 players. Somebody on this U20 team had to be the one to step up and help her. From the talk before the tournament we were led to believe it would be Ashley Sanchez, a player who has also received a senior call up. Outside of a goal in the New Zealand match and a few good moments, all we really learned about Sanchez is that she’s fast and has exceptional work rate. What about Jessie Scarpa? She was great in CONCACAF U20 WWC qualifying so perhaps she would be a successful partner for Pugh up top? Scarpa completely disappeared during this U20 tournament. Emily Fox? Present but not impactful. Ally Watt? Incredible impact sub but her limited minutes diminish her overall impact on complete matches.
This list could go on and on. The point being this is the U20 United States team, not the Mallory Pugh show. But at times this team sincerely looked like they were waiting for her to take over and drag them, truly drag them, into a championship. Pugh is a lot of things but she is only one person and it showed tonight. Up until Natalie Jacobs scored her goal, the United States had two shots total, one on goal, and that’s attributed to Mallory Pugh.
This team should not have beaten Mexico but they did because they willed themselves to work harder and push past the point of exhaustion to score two late goals as Mexico faded. Sheer effort and luck and tenacity can only take a team so far when the rest of the world has tactical competence and can complete passes and doesn’t have to rely on talismanic players to advance through tournaments. We’ve seen this failing at the senior level and now through two youth tournaments. If the past is prologue, the United States women’s program as a whole better hope there’s still time to rewrite the narrative.