The U.S. U-17 team knew that despite Tajikistan's lowly world standing, Monday's World Cup opener at the Changwon Main Stadium in Changwon, South Korea, would be no walk in the park.
However, the team certainly didn't expect to be upset by the world's 123rd-ranked team, making the U.S.'s next Group E match, against Tunisia on Thursday, a virtual must-win.
Half an hour into the 4-3 loss, it was clear the luck was on Tajikistan's side. The Americans had dominated play to that point and held a deserved 1-0 lead on captain Mykell Bates' powerful ninth-minute header. But the Central Asians equalized against the run of play on their very first shot of the match when defender Farkhod Vasiev's left-footed blast deflected off U.S. midfielder Dan Wenzel and past goalkeeper Zac MacMath.
And before the halftime whistle sounded, Tajikistan was up 2-1. Right wing Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev skillfully danced around U.S. left back Kofi Sarkodie and cut the ball back across the box for skipper Samas Shohzukhurov to drive home.
The Yanks regained the lead shortly after the break with two goals in a five-minute span. First, Billy Schuler beat his man to the end line and served in a cross that sailed over the hands of keeper Farrukh Berdiev to left winger Greg Garza, who arrived on the doorstep to steer the ball across the line. Then, in the 53rd minute, Schuler put his team up 3-2 when he headed Alex Nimo's corner kick off the turf and into the roof of the net.
But Tajikistan, playing in its first-ever World Cup match at any level, wasn't about to go quietly. Qualifying hero Davrondzhon "Beanpole" Tukhtasunov nearly evened the score twelve minutes from time when his low shot just missed MacMath's far post. Smelling blood, Tajik coach Pulod Kodirov inserted forward Nuriddin Davronov and was repaid less than two minutes later when the substitute picked up the ball at the top of the Americans' area, cut to his right and deftly placed his effort past MacMath's outstretched arms.
And in the 86th minute, the underdogs secured the unlikely victory when Fatkhuloev again shrugged off Sarkodie and hit a 25-yard bomb into the side netting past a helpless MacMath.
So, what went wrong against Tajikistan? First, the anticipated American midfield dominance never materialized. Central mids Jared Jeffrey and Dan Wenzel were ineffective for long stretches of the contest. Most of the U.S. attacks originated from Garza on the left side, Nimo running out of midfield or from right back Sheanon Williams, who often bypassed the midfielders entirely. Diminutive Bryan Dominguez (who stands just 5-4) had a few encouraging moves, but it simply wasn't enough.
FC Dallas forward Abdusalam Ibrahim, filling in for first-choice striker Ellis McLoughlin (throat ailment), didn't impress, badly missing a golden first-half chance to put his side up 2-0 and feebly shooting at the keeper on another.
Any way you cut it, it was a shocking result for John Hackworth's team, which now could be eliminated from second-round contention with another loss on Thursday. What's more, the Americans will be facing a dangerous Tunisian team that is flying high after an impressive 4-2 opening victory over Belgium.
Player ratings: (scale of 1-10)
Zac MacMath, 7 -- Young backstop (he turned 16 Aug. 8) patrolled his area confidently and wasn't at fault on any of the goals. Made several important stops, including two on searing long-range blasts from Vasiev.
Sheanon Williams, 6 -- Dealt well with everything that came his way defensively, which wasn't much as Tajikistan attacked mainly down the right side. Impressive skills going forward, but could have been more involved.
Mykell Bates, 6 – Timed his run for the goal perfectly and snapped his header home with authority. Despite the ugly score line, was rarely out of position and organized well.
Kofi Sarkodie, 4 -- Abused by the tricky Fatkhuloev on two of Tajikistan's four strikes. Should have made a tactical foul on the second. Seemed to tire toward the end.
Dan Wenzel, 4 -- Picked up a silly yellow card in the first half that could come back to haunt the U.S. in its final two group matches. Contributed little to the attack and was unable to disrupt the Tajiks' ball possession late in the match.
Jared Jeffrey, 4 -- Basically invisible, which isn't always bad for a defensive-minded midfielder. In this case it was, as the squad's most experienced player offered little of substance on either side of the ball.
Bryan Dominguez, 5 -- Colombian-raised midfielder displayed a good work rate and skill on the ball. Had a nice turn and shot that was well-saved in the first half, and had some clever touches and impressive runs in the second.
Abdusalam Ibrahim, 3 -- Team's second-youngest player (to Garza, by one day) and lone professional will want to forget this match, especially his first-half whiff on a sitter that would have made the score 2-0 in favor of the U.S. U-17s.
Greg Garza, 7 -- His pinpoint corner kick to Bates opened the scoring and he showed good anticipation and a nose for net on the second U.S. goal. Was active on the left side all evening, making clever runs and causing problems for the Tajik back line.
Billy Schuler, 7 -- Took his goal well and might have had two, but his 12th-minute strike was called back on a dubious offside call. Made a good run and provided a great cross on Garza's tally.
Alex Nimo, 6 -- Was the most dangerous American on the field, but had only one assist to show for all his hard work. Was effective running out of midfield and showed an impeccable touch on the ball, as well as a willingness to contribute defensively.
Dane Shea, 5 -- Missed a tackle on Davronov's late equalizer and did little else to thwart the pressing Tajiks during his 20 minutes of action.
Brandon Zimmerman, 5 -- Replaced the hobbled Garza with 12 minutes left but couldn't do anything to help prevent the late strikes.
Ellis McLoughlin, NR -- Came on just before Fatkhuloev's winner, and couldn't conjure anything against a packed-in D in the waning moments.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.