(Monday, August 20, 2007) -- The United States lost its way late, losing its opening men's Under-17 World Cup Group E 4-3 to Tajikistan in a match it dominated for long periods.
At Changwon (South Korea ) Main Stadium, the Tajiks, considered to be the weakest team in the group, appeared to have the U.S. well scouted and, for much of the match, adopted an extremely defensive posture. With only one player on top and eight or nine behind the ball, Tajikistan sought to choke off the Americans' short passing game. The strategy worked, allowing the U.S. few good chances despite a lopsided American advantage in time of possession in the first half.
The U.S. jumped in front with a sharp header from Mykell Bates off a corner kick in just the eighth minute, but the Americans found itself trailing 2-1 at halftime with Tajiks twice scoring against the run of play.
On the first, Farkhod Vasiev took a hard shot that seemed to be going wide, but it redirected off of U.S. defender Danny Wenzel and zoomed past the dive of goalkeeper Zac MacMath in the 32nd minute. Eleven minutues later, MacMath came off his line to face Samad Shohzukhurov and then could parry away his hard shot. So the U.S. went into intermission trailing 2-1 in a half it which it had over 60 percent of the possession.
In the first eight minutes second half, the U.S. regained the lead 3-2 on good goals from Greg Garza and Billy Schuler and the Americans seemed to be in control. But, as the match wore on, the heat seemed to take its toll on the U.S.
Then, in the 72nd minute, U.S. coach John Hackworth decided to try to hold his one-goal lead and substituted defensive midfielder Brek Shea for forward Abdusalam Ibrahim. It was a decision that may well have cost the match with none of the three American substitutions serving the cause well.
Over the final 20 minutes, Tajikistan seemed to catch a second wind and abandoned its defensive stance by inserting two new strikers in place of midfielders to go on the attack. It paid off with stunning swiftness.
In the 82nd minute, Nuriddin Davronov cut to his right at the top of the penalty area and lost his lagging defenders before striking a nice shot past MacMath. Two minutes later, one of the newly arrived strikers, Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev, controlled at the right sideline, beat his defender toward the middle and unleashed a left-footed blast from 22 yards out that caught the top left corner of the net. MacMath, standing on the six-yard line, did not move at all on the ball, watching in stunned silence, but the shot would have tested any of the top keepers in the world.
The U.S. should have won the match handily without nearly as much difficulty breaking down the Tajikistan defense in the first half. Most of the first-half attack went down the right side through Alex Nimo, but when he swung the ball back into the center, it usually went to a swarm of Tajiks.
The Americans were hurt by the absence of star striker Ellis McLoughlin who, because of a throat infection, did not enter until the 86th minute. The team's high scorer likely would have made a difference.
The U.S. defense, not put under much pressure, clearly weakened at the end. Whether it was from pressure or lack of fitness, is not clear.
The Americans are helped by a format in which 16 of the 24 teams advance to the second round, but must get a least a victory and draw in its remaining games against Tunisia and Belgium to feel secure about moving on. Tunisia was the surprise 4-2 winner over Belgium in today's opening group match.
U.S. player ratings
Goalkeeper Zac MacMath - 5: Could do little with three of the four Tajik goals. Otherwise, he was not called on to do much and had a few lapses of judgment that did end up hurting him.
Defender Sheanon Williams - 5.5: Was consistent, strong defensively on the right side throughout the match, but might have done more on attack.
Defender Mykell Bates - 5.5: The best U.S. back was solid on defense and scored the first U.S. goal with a well-taken header.
Defender Danny Wenzel - 5: Played well at times, but was victimized on Tajikistan's first goal which redirected off his leg and should have been ruled an own goal.
Defender Kofi Sarkodie - 5: Seemed to tire late and was beaten on the winning goal after an otherwise strong match.
Midfielder Jared Jeffrey - 5: Played the full 90 minutes, but left little impression on the match.
Midfielder Bryan Dominguez - 5.5: Played well, but tired near the end and had to be replaced.
Midfielder Greg Garza - 5.5: Put in a good effort, but also tired in the second half and required a substitution.
Midfielder Alex Nimo - 6: Was the dominant player in the first half and carried most of the U.S. offense down the right side. Though he did much of the work for long periods, he could have finished better.
Forward Abdusalam Ibrahim - 5: The substitute starter for McLoughlin did not take advantage of most of his opportunities.
Forward Billy Schuler - 6.: His assist and goal to start the second half put the U.S. back ahead, but he did not receive as much service as he needed or the end result might have been different.
Midfielder Brek Shea (72nd minute for Ibrahim) - 3.5: The tall defensive midfielder did almost nothing right after entering the match. Let Nuriddin Davronov move across the top of the box on Tajikistan's goal that tied the match at 3-3 with only an ineffectual lunge.
Midfielder Brandon Zimmerman (79th minute for Garza) - 5: Also did not provide help from the bench. Came in as a defensive replacement and contributed little when the U.S. suddenly had to go on the offensive.
Forward Ellis McLoughlin (86th minute for Dominguez) - 5: Obviously not fit after his illness, did manage one dangerous header. Otherwise, he was really not a factor.
SoccerTimes Player of the Match: Billy Schuler.
U.S. roster for Under-17 World Cup:
Goalkeepers (3): Larry Jackson (East Palo Alto, Calif.), Josh Lambo (Middleton, Wisc.), Zac MacMath (St. Petersburg, Fla.).
Defenders (6): Mykell Bates (Roseville, Calif.), Chris Klute (Grand Prairie, Texas), Tommy Meyer (St. Louis), Kofi Sarkodie (Huber Heights, Ohio), Sheanon Williams (Boston), Brandon Zimmerman (Pasco, Wash.).
Midfielders (7): Gregory Garza (Grapevine, Texas), Jared Jeffrey (Dallas), Brendan King (Naperville, Ill.), Alex Nimo (Portland, Ore.), Dane Shea (College Station, Texas), Kirk Urso (Lombard, Ill.), Daniel Wenzel (Federal Way, Wash.).
Forwards (5): Daniel Cruz (Glendale, Ariz.), Bryan Dominguez (Atlanta), Abdusalam Ibrahim (Richfield, Minne.), Ellis McLoughlin (Seattle), Billy Schuler (Allentown, N.J.).