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Offense was potent, but under-20 men's defense must improve for world championships.By Robert Wagman
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sunday, March 25, 2001) -- The United States under-20 men accomplished what they set out to do in the CONCACAF qualifications just completed in Trinidad & Tobago. They qualified easily for the upcoming FIFA World Youth Championships to be held in Argentina June 17-July 8.
With decisive victories over Guatemala (5-0) and host Trinidad & Tobago (5-1), and a draw with Costa Rica (1-1), the U.S. finished with an identical 2-0-1 record with Costa Rica. Though the Ticos were awarded the Group B title with a plus-10 goal differential to the Americansí plus-9, it didnít matter because the top two teams advanced to Argentina. Canada and Jamaica placed 1-2 in Group A and also headed to the world tournament.
The competition on the world stage should be more difficult than that found in North America, Central America and the Caribbean and there are concerns on how the U.S. will fare after placing 11th in the world two years ago in Nigeria.
What the U.S. accomplished in Trinidad was combining a professional offense with an amateur defense. That more than sufficed in CONCACAF, but what awaits in Argentina are many nations who will field entire rosters of experienced professionals. This could spell trouble.
In the first two matches in Trinidad, the U.S. started a front line of Conor Casey, who plays on Borussia Dortmundís reserve team in Germany, and Landon Donovan, who is under contract with Germanyís Bayer Leverkusen negotiating to split time between the Bundesliga and Major League Soccer. MLSís fast improving Bobby Convey (D.C. United) and DaMarcus Beasley (Chicago Fire) were listed as midfielders, but essentially provided the Americansí a four-man attack.
All four had a strong tournament. Convey, who has had trouble scoring goals in the past -- he has yet to notch his first in MLS -- might have had a breakthrough with three goals, including one that would have made a highlight reel at any level. Beasley, who probably was tournamentís outstanding player, also had three. Casey and Donovan each scored only once, but both showed how valuable they were with a number of key assists.
On defense, however, the U.S. put out all college players. The starters were Marylandís Phillip Salyer, UCLAís Nelson Akwari and Alexander Yi, and Clemsonís Oguchi Onyewu. As reserves, there were a number of other collegians. Playing in front of them in the midfield were national-team coach Bruce Arenaís son, Kenny Arena, who plays at Virginia and either Saint Louisí Brad Davis or Wake Forestís Brian Carroll.
All of these young men are terrific college-level players and, it can be predicted with some confidence that most have promising professional careers in front of them eventually. On paper the defense played well in qualifying, permitting two goals in the three matches, but the first two matches -- against Guatemala and T&T -- were against extremely weak opponents. Still, the American defense was susceptible to mistakes.
Defenders, especially in the middle, were turned easily. They left opponents unmarked in critical situations. At times, they seemed confused and got in each otherís way. All played hard, but a couple also left unanswered how they will do against the top competition they will see this summer.
UCLAís D.J. Countess was exceptional in goal for the U.S. in the first two matches and was rightfully named the tournamentís top goalkeeper. Clemsonís Doug Warren was solid in the draw with Costa Rica match. Had the two not played as well as they did, especially Countess, the U.S. could easily have given up three goals in each of the first two matches, and could have lost to Costa Rica -- although the latter match was essentially meaningless and a number of American starters were on the bench or not available.
In the last world championships in Nigeria in 1999, the U.S. lost to eventual finalists Spain and Japan, while upsetting England and easily beating Cameroon. Finishing that high or better in Argentina is not a given.
Many opponents will be comprised exclusively of professionals, including first-division starters on big-name teams. Argentina, Brazil, France, Ukraine, the Netherlands, and Germany will all field teams with a pro look to them.
Thereís not much more the Americans can do. Itís not as if there are better players available than the ones representing the U.S. Still, the defensive unit will be able to raise its game to a higher level then they displayed Trinidad. In CONCACAF, the defense did not have to hold in check players of the level of Franceís striker Djibril Cisse (Auxerre) and defender (Gael Givet), Russian striker Rouslan Pimenov (Lokomotiv Moscow striker), the Netherlandsí midfielder Rafael Van der Vaart, who is helping lead the Ajax revival, and Finlandís star striker Mikael Forsell, who plays for Chelsea in England and is one of the best young players in Europe.
The U.S. will find in its margin for error will shrink in Argentina. The Americans will doubt score goals; can they prevent them is the question.
Speaking of youth soccer, the fans seem to take considerably more seriously in Africa than they do here. At the African under-20 championships in Addis Ababa, Cameroon was facing Egypt, knowing a draw in their final group match meant advancement for both. The two sides apparently were content to spend much of the time aimlessly kicking the ball around in midfield.
The spectators swarmed onto the field and chased players from both teams to their lockerrooms. Order was eventually restored and Cameroon came back to the pitch to resume the game, but the Egyptians refused to return, saying they feared for their lives.
The fans then took to the streets, throwing stones at passersby and at cars, and smashing windows. Police cordoned off the area and retaliated with tear gas.
The tournament was terminated leaving Africa to decide how to play the remainder of the matches and determine its four representatives to Argentina.
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be
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Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..