Just how fortunate did U.S. under-20 coach Thomas Rongen consider his team to be after tying South Korea, 1-1, in its Group D opener Saturday?
"We are happy with tonight's result, but we're not happy with the way we played," said Rongen of a match South Korea controlled for long stretches. "Quite frankly, we are lucky to have come away with a draw against very good Korean squad. They are fast and strong and to be honest we didn't do our part to match up with them tonight."
The quick, eager South Koreans forced numerous turnovers and threatened the U.S. goal with quick combinations through the middle, long balls over the top and the occasional cross from the flank. To play well at a high pace requires cohesion and coordination, as well as clean touches, and South Korea proved to be superior in most departments over the 90 minutes.
The occasional U.S. threats came from sudden bursts, not clever buildups. South Korea's midfield pressure exploited an American team prone to lazy first touches and aimless clearances. Jozy Altidore overpowered his defenders a few times only to be whistled for fouls, but wasn't sharp enough to cope with tight, relentless marking. Twice he clashed with defenders at the edge of the penalty area and appeared to have been fouled from behind but didn't get the calls.
After Danny Szetela charged out of midfield to head home a driven ball from Sal Zizzo that had been touched on by Freddy Adu in the 16th minute, South Korea cranked up the tempo a notch or two and the U.S. scrambled to keep up.
Giveaways marred the U.S. efforts in the defensive and neutral thirds. The Americans struggled to supply the three-man front line of Robbie Rogers, Altidore and Zizzo, as Adu filled the playmaker's role backed by Szetela and Michael Bradley. In the back, Nathan Sturgis set a wrong tone in the opening minutes with a horrendous giveaway that only a strong block from Julian Valentin prevented from turning into a goal. A shanked shot by Young Sung Shim from close range produced a good save from Chris Seitz.
Seven minutes before halftime, Shim broke free again and slotted a through ball that sent Young Rok Shin clear to score the equalizer.
Bradley and left back Tim Ward were competent enough on the ball, and Adu got forward when his first touch didn't let him down. Yet when possession was lost, they and their teammates couldn't cope with the South Koreans passing and interchanging of positions except by fouling. The U.S. committed 26 fouls to 12 for its opponents, and was outshot, 13-7.
Shin hit the crossbar early in the second half to further rattle the U.S. nerves, and Seitz saved the game by charging out to block a shot by Sang Ho Lee,then scrambling back on his feet to harass Lee's followup shot, which hit the side netting.
Adu curled a couple of free kicks that caused the South Koreans some problems, and with 20 minutes left he glided past two opponents to center a ball that Zizzo couldn't meet solidly.
Next up for the Americans, on Tuesday, is Poland, which upset Brazil, 1-0, in its first game despite playing the last 63 minutes a man down. The Poles may be slower than the South Koreans but they won't be any easier.
June 30 in Montreal
USA 1 South Korea 1. Goals: Szetela 16, Young Rok Shin 38.
USA --Seitz, Ward, Sturgis, Valentin, Beltran, Szetela (McCarty, 52), Rogers, Adu, Bradley, Altidore, Zizzo
South Korea -- Jin Hyeon Kim, Chul, Kwang, Sung Yueng Ki, Dong (Jin Hyung Song, 70), Sang, Young Sung Shim (Hyun Seung Lee, 84), Joo Ho Park, Chung, Young Rok Shin (Tae Goon Ha, 59), Seung.
Yellow cards:USA -- Rogers 18, Szetela 27; South Korea -- Sang 56, Chul 78.
Referee:Joel Aguilar (El Salvador).