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USA U20 falls to Mexico on penalties in CONCACAF championship

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Oof.

Starting XI: Amanda McGlynn, Kiara Pickett, Naomi Girma, Karina Rodriguez, Isabel Rodriguez, Savannah DeMelo, Jaelin Howell, Brianna Pinto, Civana Kuhlmann, Sophia Smith, Taryn Torres

The United States U-20 WNT took on Mexico on a grey, humid day in the final of the CONCACAF championship. Both teams were already qualified for the World Cup in France, making this a nice opportunity to showcase a competitive starting XI without as much pressure. Still, it’s never pressure free when the U-20 USA and Mexico sides clash, and pressure the US did.

Lots of early pressure got applied through the judicious use of Jaelin Howell, who looked determined to singlehandedly push the US to a better performance than the one they presented against Haiti. She was joined by DeMelo and her remarkable engine and to a certain extent by Pinto, applying lots of pressure through the midfield to allow the forwards to keep pushing at Mexico’s 18-yard box. Unfortunately the front three of Kuhlmann, Smith, and Torres weren’t able to capitalize on the support, not moving the ball well enough to open up more chances on goal. They had a great chance early on in the 11’ through a goalkeeper error when Kuhlmann’s shot rebounded off the GK and Pinto attempted to set up Torres, but her shot was blocked.

But if Mexico were kept more in their own half, when they did break out they made better of their chances and went ahead in the 33’ off a Dayana Cazares goal. Cazares sharply eluded a clumsy stab at the ball, dribbled into space, and took the shot.

That was the only goal for the first half. In the second half, Klimkova sent Tierna Davidson on for Karina Rodriguez, perhaps thinking it would help solidify her center back pairing. She also subbed in Ashley Sanchez for Torres. Davidson made good on her sub by scoring the equalizer in the 49’ on a ball off a short corner.

Perhaps energized by the goal, for a while midfield distribution manufactured some better ball movement in linking the lines, but Mexico kept pinching off players with pressure, giving back as much physical presence as they got. Klimkova made another attempt to energize a clearly tired team in the 72’ with Abigail Kim on for Kuhlmann, but Kim’s speed was mostly ineffective with her either not on the ball or not connected to a tired offense that moved even less than usual as the minutes wore on.

Mexico penned the US into their own box for a long series of corner kicks through the 80’, only to see Sophia Smith try to engineer a couple of game winning moments. But one of Smith’s problems through most of this game was holding the ball too long, allowing herself to get swarmed by Mexican defenders. To be fair she sometimes looked like the best option in front of goal, swarm or no, but the forward line was definitely missing the simplicity of a pass to open space.

Despite DeMelo still battling it out in midfield and a last-minute attempt from Smith, the US ended regulation at 1-1. By tournament rules, the teams had to play extra time instead of going straight to penalties, as they did in previous rounds.

The less said of extra time the better. After a full 90 in absurd humidity, a bare 48 hours after both teams played in the crucial qualifying semifinal round, there was just nothing left in the tank. Mexico set up better chances than the US in front of goal in the first period, but in the second period made exhausted slip-ups that allowed the ball into wide open space. Equally exhausted US players couldn’t capitalize on the chance, and so they ultimately went to penalties.

Emily Alvarado, who looked shaky in goal during regulation, stepped up for Mexico with two nice blocks, one on a weak side-footed effort from Pinto and the other on Pickett. McGlynn made a nice save herself, but couldn’t reach a couple of well-placed shots, and it was Mexico who ultimately came out the winner.

It’s not an unjust result based on how the teams played in regulation; once again the United States looked like a team relying on outstanding individual performance rather than good tactical awareness. Although they achieved their primary goal of qualifying for the World Cup, there’s questions to be asked here as this finals performance was pretty indicative of how they looked for the entire tournament, tired legs or no.