U.S. team's flaws brutally exposed by Korea
SUEZ, Egypt -- In its final group match, the U.S. U-20 national team played just as they had in a previous match at this World Cup in Egypt.
Unfortunately for coach Thomas Rongen, the match the U-20s replicated was not their convincing win over Cameroon, but rather the comprehensive opening loss to Germany. A clinical and hard-working South Korean side was everything the Americans weren't, winning battles in every sector of the field and taking away a convincing 3-0 victory, to leave the Americans' chances of advancing at the FIFA U-20 World Cup dangling by a thread.
"Our squad showed very strong mental resilience tonight, and a strong will to win, compared to the U.S.," said South Korean coach Hong Myung Bo.
On this night, just about any amount of resilience and will to win would have outdone the indifferent Americans. But the Koreans brought intensity from the opening whistle that the U.S., perhaps overconfident after their runaway victory over the Africans on Friday, never showed any signs of matching.
Rongen chose the same starting 11 that had played so well three days earlier, but the squad had no answers for the Koreans' determination and technical skill. After a pair of early near misses, the U.S. was soon chasing the game when midfielder Kim Young Gwon collected a loose ball after a corner kick and bounced a shot off the inside of the post for the lead.
"I felt we'd built some cohesiveness with that unit, but we struggled today on both sides of the ball," Rongen said. "With the ball we weren't good enough, and defensively if you're conceding set pieces, with the aerial strength that we have, that wasn't good."
The Americans might have considered themselves a bit unlucky to go down a second goal just before halftime, making their task against the organized South Korea team even more daunting, and forcing Rongen into some changes for the second period. The coach removed forward Tony Taylor, who had aggravated a hamstring injury, in favor of Peri Marosevic, and moved the towering Brek Shea up front alongside him.
The Americans then began slamming a series of hopeful long balls into the Korean end, looking to play more directly. It was a strategy the Koreans had little trouble defending, and made for an anticlimactic second half in which the outcome was never seriously in doubt. The Asians put the game away when American central defender Ike Opara got caught up with a Korean attacker in the area and was whistled for a penalty, and sent off by Italian referee Roberto Rosetti.
"We decided to go to a 4-4-2 in the second half," Rongen said. "We wanted to reverse the pressure and play in the half of the opponent, and try to get back in the game one goal at a time. But the red card and the PK really hurt us because there you're really chasing the game."
With so much on the line, Rongen expressed disappointment not to have gotten a result against a Korean team that had created limited offensive chances in its first two matches.
"We knew the importance of this game coming in," Rongen said. "A tie or a victory would have put us through. But unfortunately -- let's be real frank -- technically and tactically Korea was superior to the U.S. We're bitterly disappointed with the result, but at the end of the day we just weren't good enough to get the results that we needed."
If there was one silver lining to an otherwise thoroughly disappointing evening, it came when Germany defeated Cameroon 3-0, leaving the Americans in third place in the group. Rongen's team thus retained a slim mathematical possibility of advancing to the second round as a third-place wild card.
"I'm not a mathematician, but I guess that keeps us somewhat alive," Rongen said. "But, that we walked away with three points out of a potential nine, to us as a group that sets high standards, was very disappointing."
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
Brian Perk, GK, 5 -- The UCLA keeper couldn't really do much on any of the three goals but pick the ball out of the net, and -- aided by the crossbar -- he had a big stop earlier in the first half, which temporarily kept the game scoreless.
Sheanon Williams, D, 3.5 -- Williams started off well but had a subpar game. The right back was beaten on Korea's second goal when he misjudged a cross into the box and allowed it to fly over his head to the feet of a Korean attacker. The former Tar Heel was also ineffective when he tried to get forward into the attack.
Gale Agbossoumonde, D, 4.5 -- The big defender was the best on the American back line, which isn't saying too much on this night. The Miami FC man consistently had to cover for his teammates' errors and managed to stay in the game despite seeing yellow in the first half hour, which itself was quite a feat with Rosetti in the middle.
Ike Opara, D, 3.5 -- Not his usual dominating self in the air, Opara was responsible for a series of shaky clearances in the first half, including one that led to the corner from which Korea scored its first goal. The wheels came off in the second half for the defender, though it was not entirely Opara's fault when referee Rosetti first showed him a phantom yellow card, and then red when his feet got tangled with a Korean attacker in the box.
Jorge Flores, D, 3.5 -- Rongen opted to stay with the Chivas USA defender even with the healthy Kyle Davies on the bench, but Flores failed to reward his coach. His defense was improved over the last match as he kept with the Korean attackers, but his crossing -- usually a high point of his game -- was terrible all night.
Bryan Arguez, M, 4 -- The Hertha Berlin midfielder failed to follow up his good showings in the previous two matches, looking indifferent for 60 minutes before being subbed out. Arguez did the best job of the American midfielders of working in tight spaces and distributing, but it wasn't nearly enough.
Dilly Duka, M, 3.5 -- Duka searched all night for ways forward, but the Koreans were always a step quicker to the ball. The former Rutgers man disappeared completely from the game in the second half when Rongen shifted him over to the left side.
Jared Jeffrey, M, 3 -- This was the worst and most disappointing game of the tournament for the rock of the American midfield. When the Club Brugge midfielder had the chance to control pace and tempo in the first half, he instead gave the ball away frequently and was stymied by the Korean midfield the whole game.
Brek Shea, F, 3 -- In his least productive game of the group round, Shea tried a number of tricks but never managed to get by the Korean defense on the wing in the first half. When he shifted up to forward for the final 45 minutes, he was equally ineffective, unable to use his height to control aerial play.
Danny Cruz, F, 4.5 -- Cruz put in another solid night's work alternating between the flanks, but never managed to get around the corner or create a legitimately dangerous chance. The Houston Dynamo man won a number of second balls but couldn't quite make that final productive touch on most occasions.
Tony Taylor, F, 3.5 -- Taylor again looked alone at the point of the attack in what was in essence a 4-5-1 in the first half. The forward never created much danger, and was subbed out at halftime with an apparent hamstring injury.
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Peri Marosevic, F, 3.5 -- The team's leading scorer coming into the tournament proved another disappointment in his first 45 minutes of action, hardly figuring at all. In fairness, the aerial long ball game the U.S. opted for in the second half meant Marosevic spent most of his time chasing the ball or watching it sail over his head.
Mikkel Diskerud, M, 3.5 -- See Marosevic, above. The more direct game was not suited to Diskerud's qualities or style, and he looked lost running around for half an hour.
Kyle Davies, D, NR -- The team's original captain brought a semblance of leadership and purpose during his brief appearance, but things were already out of hand.
Brent Latham covers U.S. soccer for ESPNsoccernet. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio and can be reached at email@example.com.