Americans pounce on host India to win first match at U-17 World Cup
NEW DELHI -- The United States Under-17 soccer team came into the FIFA U-17 World Cup knowing that irrespective of how deep they advance in their record-equaling 16th appearance at the tournament, things will never be the same for the U-17 setup.
With the residency program of U.S. Soccer set to wind down operations in Bradenton, Florida, it has been agreed that the original objective of having world clubs set up their own youth academies has been achieved.
The 21 U.S. players who played host India in their opening match in front of 45,000 fans at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Friday evening, are the last in a line of players who have come from the residency program, players such as Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley. Some of the current players have bright futures ahead of them with teams around the world, such as striker Josh Sargent -- who will be heading to Bundesliga club Werder Bremen next year -- and Paris Saint-Germain's Tim Weah.
Coach John Hackworth took most of Thursday's pre-match news conference to downplay his team's superiority over the hosts, but right from the start on Friday, they were intent on attacking the Indian defence.
Hackworth set out his stall to attack, with a 4-2-1-3 formation, where Andrew Carleton was playing right up alongside the attacking trio of Sargent, Weah and Ayo Akinola. The full-backs, Jaylin Lindsey and Chris Gloster, pushed up a fair bit, too, and the first half an hour was all about American domination.
They did get a bit lucky with the first goal that came just about then, Sargent losing control of the ball in trying to dribble past Indian defender Jitendra Singh, then winning a penalty from a tumble that he took as he looked to get past his opponent. His penalty conversion meant a goal in the same year for the U.S. in both the U-20 and the U-17 World Cup, something even Freddy Adu had failed to achieve in 2003.
The U.S. added a second goal through centre-back Chris Durkin early in the second half -- a period of play that began with Sargent dropping a little deep to allow Carleton more time on the ball -- but then rode their luck through two great chances for India.
The first came when winger Komal Thatal beat everybody to an aerial ball missed in defence by James Sands, but Thatal chipped the ball over the bar, with goalkeeper Justin Garces off his line. With about six minutes on the clock, Indian defender Anwar Ali then smashed the ball into the bar, and from the resultant action, the U.S. got their third goal through Carleton.
It was a match not as easy as the 3-0 scoreline would suggest, not least of all because of a near-capacity crowd rooting for an Indian team playing in a FIFA World Cup at any level for the very first time. It's also quite hot in India this time of the year, and the U.S. team's next match is a potential decider for the top of the group against two-time champions Ghana, with a kickoff at 5 p.m. local time (7:30 a.m. ET) on Monday.
Friday's victory marked the first time since 2011 that the U.S. won their opening match at the U-17 World Cup. Things had gone south then for the Americans, losing to Uzbekistan and then being held goalless by New Zealand. The U.S. only made the knockout ahead of New Zealand on draw of lots, as both teams had finished with identical numbers, goal difference and scored and conceded, highlighting both the fine margins of quality between countries at this age-group level, as well as the fickle nature of the format in which 16 out of 24 teams make it through to the knockout stages.
This time, Hackworth will want to leave nothing to chance. It's the last time these players -- "brothers," as Durkin called them when hailing the fitness of the entire team -- could be together as a group. And they want it to be an occasion to remember.