With a 1-0 loss to Japan, the U20’s finished fourth place in the 2016 U20 Women’s World Cup. Throughout the majority of this tournament, the U20’s chased the game from the opening whistle and never really threatened to get onto the podium. If not for a standout match from goalkeeper Casey Murphy Japan could have won by three or four goals - and that’s a conservative estimate. The final scoreline may be forgiving to the United States but, in retrospect, their overall performance will not be looked upon so kindly.
USA on their heels
In this third place match everything that’s gone wrong all tournament finally caught up with the U20’s. Add in a 90 degree, 68% humidity day on top of already exhausted legs and you’ve got a recipe for absolute disaster. In a lot of ways, this match felt like a culmination of every criticism levied from the very first group match to the semi-final. The United States rarely possessed the ball and when they did get on the ball they either turned it over, lopped it forward in some desperate attempt to find their savior Mallory Pugh, or were immediately dispossessed. Against France and Mexico the U20’s were able to escape with a draw and a win respectively, those teams didn’t possess the tools to clinically finish the job.
Japan had no such problem. Even looking back at the semi-final against eventual tournament winners, Korea DPR, the United States can’t solve possession. So against teams that are organized and well-coached like Korea DPR and Japan, there’s no chance. At times Japan made the U20’s look silly, they made them look inferior, and they exposed a major failing in the American soccer philosophy. You don’t always have to have the ball in soccer, sometimes possession can be overrated, and counter attacking football is valid. However, you have to be able to move the ball quickly and intelligently when you do win it against organized sides if you’re going to play counter attacking football. Quite frankly, this U20 team never demonstrated they were capable of that and that is why they are going home without a medal.
Michelle French needs to go
If there’s any hope of not wasting yet another U20 cycle, Michelle French needs to be let go as the coach of this team. One thing that was evident throughout this tournament - and through the 2014 edition - is that French is not the person to lead this team to glory. Of course, after the quarterfinal exit in Canada 2014 would have been an opportune time to let her go and bring in a coach who can do something with this team. If the team looked unprepared, chased the game, never asked any questions, and didn’t have any answers that reflects on the coach. And for what it’s worth, this is the same problem that happened in 2014.
In both cycles, the United States had a bevy of raw talent looking for guidance in order to form a cohesive unit and continue the winning tradition at the U20 WWC level. In both cycles, French has squandered that talent with her unimaginative tactics and her absent motivational skills. With the talent on this 2016 U20 team, there should never be a stretch where all 10 field players are in their own 18-yard-box and it’s not a corner kick. But that’s U20 soccer under French and it’s a waste of the talent we do have at this level. Yes, the talent is raw and could use a lot of polish but it is negligent to not give these players a coach that could develop them into something. Not only negligent to the players but negligent to the future of a youth program that is rapidly and obviously falling behind.
It’s USA versus the world
By the current scorecard, the world has the upper hand against the United States in terms of youth development. Yes, Mallory Pugh is a great player and there wasn’t one individual player in terms of raw talent this tournament that stood above Pugh’s potential. The problem is, in the way that the Americans played it’s evident they also thought so. At one point, all of the U20’s literally stood there and watched as Pugh won the ball back in their own defensive third and attempted to take on six Japanese players as she took on the entire opposing team by herself. Spoiler alert: it didn’t end well.
Perhaps it’s endemic of a United States senior program that’s gone from the strategy of ‘hope Mia Hamm wins us this game’ to ‘hope Abby Wambach wins us this game’ to ‘hope Carli Lloyd wins us this game’. It was bound to trickle down to the youth level at some point. Or perhaps it’s always been there at the youth level and the fact that it’s finally stopped yielding results is the problem. For so long, the United States had the edge in everything important: technology, funding, talent, and results. That’s what happens when you’re the most developed nation at the time these things get going. But winning everything has made this entire program complacent and now it’s essentially rotting from the inside out.
There may not have been a single player that stood out over the potential of Pugh but there were many teams that stood out over the U20’s. Soccer may be a sport that produces many gifted individuals but it will always be a team sport. It is in these youth tournaments that we can see the evolution of the women’s game and, quite frankly, the future does not look American.
We don’t produce midfielders that can pass and move the ball effectively or take control of matches. Our strikers at the youth level mimic their elder counterparts in that they dominate lesser CONCACAF and low-ranked opponents but go on vacation against top opposition. They can’t control games and that’s down to the US coaching from when they’re kids that drains every ounce of creativity and individual will out of these players until they’re automatons following bad directions from coaches like French.
In the end, it’s another wasted youth cycle from an American standpoint. Hopefully we can look back on this cycle as the kick in the chin that forced the United States to completely overhaul its youth development philosophy. With the pending Girl’s Development Academy cash cow on the horizon, let’s not hold our breath.