Hugely disappointing U.S. team with one last shot
After two hugely disappointing games, nothing would suggest that the U.S suddenly will reverse its fortunes and beat Belgium (2:45 am ET, ESPNU) in its third and final group game on Sunday. But to at least give themselves a shot at advancing to the second round of the U-17 World Cup, that is one of a number of things that must happen.
Amazingly, a convincing win against the Belgians (by two or more goals) combined with a Tunisian victory over tricky Tajikistan by a similar score line could even be enough, based on goal differential, to clinch second place and secure automatic advancement from what coach John Hackworth describes as the competition's "toughest group."
Still, the reality is that Hackworth's side still isn't close to being in control of its own destiny. Even if the Americans dispatch a very average Belgium squad by an avalanche of goals, they would be guaranteed of nothing more than a third place finish. And based on other results in the remaining group finals, three points might not be enough to see them through as one of the top four third-place teams.
Understand? You could lose your mind examining the seemingly endless scenarios under which the U.S. would or wouldn't advance. (If you don't believe us, click here:) But whether they make it or not isn't really the point. The truth is, the Americans have played so poorly so far that they don't really deserve to play past this weekend. And even if they get lucky and go through, you wouldn't expect them to last very long in the knockout stages anyway.
Against Tajikistan and Tunisia, not exactly big names in world football, the Americans looked physically, technically and tactically overmatched. They displayed no semblance of teamwork or cohesion. And none of the name players have produced anything encouraging at all.
But even more worrying was their lack of urgency. In their last outing, a 3-1 loss to the North Africans, the Yanks didn't put a quality chance on frame until the 85th minute. That's inexcusable at the international level. Most of the players seemed unable or unwilling to dig deep when things started going wrong. That's not a recipe for success either.
Make no mistake: there will be plenty of hand-wringing back at Soccer House if this bunch becomes the first U.S. youth team in recent memory to be eliminated from a World Cup in the first round.
U.S. Soccer pours millions of dollars into its U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla. every year and is desperately craving a world championship at this level, especially after CONCACAF rival Mexico won one in Peru two years ago. But considering all the evidence, such a feat is still pretty far off the mark.
Big things have been expected for a long time. Yet, no U.S. team has made it past the quarterfinal stage at any level since current senior national teamers Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu and Bobby Convey led the 1999 squad to a fourth-place finish.
The 2007-edition U-17s were touted as an entry capable of at least matching that feat. Instead, Hackworth's charges have been alarmingly unconvincing since arriving on the Korean peninsula. Can they make fans forget that if they manage to sneak into the second round? All that is certain is that if their tournament ends tomorrow, hard questions will be asked.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.