Friday night’s victory for the United States over Brazil in the U-20 World Cup was one of the great moments of the past several years for US Soccer. Brazil’s squad features the incomparable Alexandre Pato, but tonight Freddy Adu made a strong case that at this level he is as effective as Pato. Adu’s excellent ball skills and confidence were on full display with a world class run and shot in minute 81 led to Jozy Altidore’s game winning goal. Adu was dominant but in truth the US defense was quite worrying. After a sold first two matches Nathan Sturgis and Tony Beltran both seemed to have their hands more than full with Brazil’s attack. Chris Seitz despite losing control of the ball on Brazil’s goal, was perfectly positioned all night long and quite frankly bailed out his defense on several occasions after breakdowns in the defensive third.
Freddy Adu’s work rate and composure were amazing in the match. His poor form in MLS seems to not be representative of the type of player he is in big matches: he’s proven time and time again when he’s played at the international level or in a club friendly versus top level European competition he raises his game to a very high level. Around minute 60, it seemed to legs of all the US players excepting Adu and Michael Bradley were dying or were already dead. Runs were being mistimed, and the ball work and passing was becoming sloppier and sloppier. Quite frankly, at this point I felt Coach Thomas Rongen should have substituted holding midfielder Dax McCarty, a scrappy ball winner for Altidore whose passes and runs were becoming more and more erratic.
Unfortunately, when Brazil scored in the 64th minute, it was necessary to keep Altidore on the pitch. The devastating pre-tournament injuries to Quavas Kirk (a midfielder who pushes often into the attack) and Johann Smith have forced Altidore to work alone up top and have clearly worn him down. From minutes 65 until he scored the game winning goal thanks to being positioned properly for a rebound, Altidore was completely ineffective and appeared to be completely spent. The same can be said for Robbie Rogers, another valuable attacking player for the US, who Rongen did pull out in the 82nd minute after Altidore’s game winning goal. During the same period Sal Zizzo, who has been the US’ second best player in the group stage (behind Adu) also looked like the outstanding runs he had made in the first two and a half matches of the tournament were a thing of the past as his energy level looked very low. In addition, Zizzo failed to track back on defense twice and left Tony Beltran totally exposed on the right side, and this almost led to two Brazilian goals. But Freddy Adu kept on trucking so to speak, and his amazing, high energy play during this period of the match won the US Team the group. Altidore has to be given credit however for toiling through his obvious fatigue and positioning himself in a textbook manner at the far post for a rebound that won the group for the United States.
After the US reclaimed the lead at 2-1 it seemed everyone on the squad dug a little deeper and found whatever energy they had left. But Brazil, considered the top U-20 team in the world before this tournament began created a relentless assault on the US goal in the last ten minutes. By this time, South Korea had drawn level with Poland in the other group match and it appeared that the US could still win the group with a draw. But thanks to Chris Seitz, who was noticeably spent at the end of the match the South Korea-Poland result did not matter and the US won the group with three points to spare.
Tonight’s victory spoke to the character of the U-20 team, a character that has rarely been exhibited in big matches outside the United States by the Senior National Team. Certainly the draw in the 2006 World Cup against Italy, the 1999 Confederations Cup win versus Germany and the 1995 Copa America win against Argentina belong high in any category, but through the years it seems when the Senior National Team has had an opportunity like this on the international stage, they have often times wilted. Despite facing a constant assault from a desperate team that was favored to win this tournament our boys held strong. I guess we learned tonight, to quote the Who, the kids are alright! (Even if we are still fretting over the Senior National Team’s Copa America performance).
The US will next play on Wednesday against the third place team from either Group B,E, or F. The possible teams the US will face are Zambia, Jordan, Scotland, North Korea or Costa Rica.