U.S. faces UAE with group qualification on the line
KANO, Nigeria -- The American U-17 national team has played its first two games in Nigeria, but the central question concerning the team still has not been resolved.
After a narrow 2-1 loss to a short-handed Spanish team and an uninspired 1-0 victory over Malawi, it is still difficult to say whether Wilmer Cabrera's young players are ready to take a step forward for American youth soccer or are simply another competent but unexceptional team from the USSF's Bradenton Academy.
|U.S. U-17 men's schedule|
U.S. versus United Arab Emirates
Gateway International; Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria
10 a.m. ET, ESPNU, ESPN360.com
The answer will have to come Sunday. What might have been a first-round confirmation of the abilities of a promising young group of Americans has quickly turned into a high-pressure situation all around. The team sits in third place as it prepares for its final Group E match against the United Arab Emirates in the southern town of Ijebu-Ode.
The Americans have shown a number of faces in Nigeria thus far, none of them overwhelmingly encouraging. Playing a man up the entire game against a very gifted Spanish team, they showed flair but still managed to lose. The U.S. put in a much-less-convincing effort Thursday afternoon, seeing off Malawi by a lone goal, and leaving all possibilities open -- for success or failure in the first round -- depending on the result of Sunday's game. "We had the chance to win our first game and continue alive, to think of the possibility of going to the next stage," Cabrera said after the victory over Malawi. "We found the goal that gave us the possibility to look ahead and think about UAE."
The team will have a lot of thinking to do. The United Arab Emirates did enough in its first two games to remain level on goal differential, equal with the Americans. But the UAE has managed one more goal, meaning a tie Sunday would leave the two teams level on points, but send the Emirates through in second place. After his team's fighting effort resulted in a 3-1 loss against a rampant Spanish squad, UAE coach Ali Ebrahim was already hinting that one point against the U.S. would be a welcome result.
"The opportunity is for us and for the USA," Ebrahim said. "This is the last chance for us, draw or win the game, we are looking to pass to the second round. We try at least to take one point that will get us to the second round."
In case of that tie Sunday, the Americans would still have a shot to qualify for the round of 16 as one of the best third-place teams, a possibility that looked like a good bet after Friday's games. But the options for the third-place team in Group E are not particularly attractive ones. In that scenario, the U.S. would either travel to Abuja to take on tournament host Nigeria in front of a screaming partisan crowd at the National Stadium, or, on short rest, face a Turkish squad that clinched Group D after two games.
The U.S. and the UAE both had plenty of time to mill over those options Friday as they made the long trek south to Ijebu-Ode, the venue farthest from Kano in terms of travel time. No one at FIFA or the local organizers would even attempt to explain why the third group game for these two teams had been scheduled at the most remote possible destination, but it was an issue that caused some displeasure with the tournament organization in the Arab camp.
"I don't know why. We don't like this, but we have nothing to do [about it]," said UAE team manager Jamal Buhindi. "We have to pack our bags and go all this way. We have one day to travel and one to train before this important game. Then, who knows? Back [to Kano] maybe. This is our luck, with the American team also. It is very bad."
If the teams can regain their legs after the long trip, the game is likely to follow a script the Americans are used to by now. In its first two matches, the UAE has tended to cede possession and rely on a quick counterattack. Spain out-possessed the Emirates by a whopping 3-to-1 margin in the first half of the game Thursday night, before the UAE responded in the second half.
But that lack of possession has not stopped the UAE from scoring. Quick and creative forwards Fahad Salim and Mohammed Sebil lead a skilled and creative group of attacking players. Sebil has already scored two goals in Nigeria, including an acrobatic side volley against Spain and a goal of the tournament candidate from near midfield against Malawi.
The UAE is solid in defense as well. Much like the Malawian defense, which disrupted the U.S. attack in the final third, the Emirates are compact in the back. But they have made fewer errors than the Africans and have been tougher to break down. In short, they are similar to Malawi, only better.
So on Sunday, success for the Americans is likely to once again come down to a theme that has already become repetitive -- taking advantage of their goal-scoring chances, which may be few and far between against a team content to walk away with a draw. The Americans' finishing, suspect so far, is a topic Cabrera seems to be growing weary of discussing.
"We practice finishing all the time," said the American coach after his team spurned several more chances against the Africans. "Now it's a matter of finding the timing that the players need on the field. We're creating options, but it's difficult when you don't put the ball in the net, because you are giving motivation to the other team."
Making the task a bit easier for the U.S., the Emirates will be missing starting left-side defender Abdul Yousuf to a yellow-card accumulation suspension. Cabrera has a full complement of players to call on, and needing goals, may go back to the drawing board to try to find a successful pairing for Jack McInerney up front.
While a tie should be enough to see the Americans through to the second round, a loss will most likely lead to an early and very disappointing first-round elimination. While much remains unclear in the group, one thing that's certain is that on Sunday, goals will be at an even greater premium than usual.
"We need to score, we need a win," midfielder Luis Gil said. "We need to keep the ball as well, but we need to finish our chances. We need to keep on winning. From here on out we can't lose; we just have to win."
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.