If there is one thing most European teams present their opponents at a world championship, regardless of the age level, it's tactical soundness.
"They may not have the technical ability of the South American teams or the athletic talents of the African teams, but they are usually well-organized and hard to break down," says U.S under-20 coach Thomas Rongen, who first came to America during a playing career that began in the Ajax system.
Before the FIFA U-20 World Cup started Rongen said of Poland, "From looking at the tape, Poland is a typical Eastern European country that's going to be very hard to break down and very methodical in their approach."
To those attributes can be added opportunism and determination and resiliency. Poland upset Brazil, 1-0, on the opening day of play with a long-range free kick by Grzegorz Krychowiak and a staunch defensive display following the ejection of Real Madrid's Krzysztof Krol in the 27th minute. It held on to that one goal, despite being outshot, 14-2.
The U.S. ground out what Rongen called "a big point" against South Korea, 1-1, in its opener despite being overrun for much of the match. Danny Szetela's goal in the 16th minute put the U.S. ahead, but the Americans couldn't subdue their tireless, spirited opponents and needed a few crucial saves from keeper Chris Seitz to earn that point.
Szetela was one of the players to feel the numbing effects of South Korea's pace. Dax McCarty replaced him, and within a few minutes had inadvertently triggered a South Korean attack with a careless giveaway. In that regard, he wasn't alone. Aside from brief flurries, the Americans scrambled to keep themselves in the game.
Turnovers in the neutral third were far too common, and while Poland won't close down as quickly, their cohesive, systemic adherence to blotting out attacks will present a quite different yet no less formidable obstacle.
Jozy Altidore may fare better against the rugged Poles than he did against the relentless South Koreans, and Freddy Adu needs to be much be sharper each time he gets the ball. A few of Adu's free kicks tested the South Koreans, but against Brazil the Polish defenders were quick and strong in the air.
The U.S. has capable wide players in Sal Zizzo and Robbie Rogers, and must find ways to play them into space behind the back line.
South Korea's movement, deft touches, and speed stretched the U.S. defense and seldom when the Americans did win the ball were they able to keep it and mount attacks.
"I think we're going to have to play better in all areas if we're going to beat Poland," said defender Nathan Sturgis, who also coughed up a ball South Korea nearly turned into a goal.
"Defensively I think we need to stay more organized and not let them get behind us. Offensively, we need to possess the ball a little bit more and put them under attack more than we were able to keep South Korea under pressure."