[UNDER-20 WOMEN'S WORLD CUP] North Korea displayed persistence and precision while reaching the U-20 Women's World Cup final; the USA got there by utilizing both of those elements, plus an occasional dash of brilliance.
In the final Sunday in Santiago, Chile, opportunistic strikes by Sydney Leroux and Alex Morgan -- honored with the Golden Ball and Silver Ball, respectively, as tournament MVP and runner-up - carried the USA past North Korea, 2-1, to secure the first American win at the under-20 level.
Leroux scored midway through the first half from just outside the penalty area and Morgan wriggled past four defenders to nail with an incredible shot into the top corner shortly before halftime and provide a 2-0 lead the Americans nursed to the final whistle.
Cha Hu Nam scored in the 92nd minute to jangle the U.S. nerves slightly but two minutes later referee Alexandra Ihringova signaled the end of the match.
"It was obviously very difficult for us to hold onto the lead because they kept coming at us and giving us trouble possessing the ball," said U.S. coach Tony DiCicco. "I am very, very proud of my players tonight."
North Korea outshot the U.S., 15-9. Six of the North Korean shots required saves by American keeper Alyssa Naeher, and DiCicco brought on Michelle Enyeart and Ingrid Wells as substitutes in the second half to blunt waves of attacks.
Despite their effort, the North Koreans were unable to penetrate deeply into the U.S. third and most of their shots came from far out. Unable to replicate the predatory instincts of Leroux, who led the tournament with five goals, or the guile of Morgan, who dazzled opponents with her elegant touch and sharp swerves of direction, North Korea relinquished the U-20 title it won two years ago.
"I've never felt like this before in my life," said Leroux, a freshman at UCLA who, like most of the U-20s, missed the final weeks of the college season to play for the world title. "After the game, we were all crying because it just felt so amazing. I'm so happy with my team and the way we played the whole way through. We've gone through a lot together and to go to the final and have the gold medals around our necks is just amazing."
The U.S. started nervously, and after 10 minutes Ra Un Sim worked herself free but hesitated with her shot and Nikki Marshall cleared the ball out of danger. The Americans gradually seized control of midfield and scored in the 23rd minute when North Korea turned the ball over in midfield. Keelin Winters chipped the ball back into the goalmouth as the North Korean defenders pushed up to trap Leroux offside.
But one defender didn't clear the zone, and Leroux had just enough time and space to bring the ball down and drive a rising right-footer past keeper Kim Un Ju.
American pressure produced further chances. Leroux shot just wide, and Morgan forced a good save before lighting up the tournament with its best goal. She gathered up a throw-in from Elli Reed, veered inside on the dribble past two defenders, recovered the ball without breaking stride after a third opponent had nicked it, and cut inside a fourth to set up a left-footed belter that flew into the net from 25 yards.
"I think we were happy with a 1-0 lead, but once it became 2-0 I think we realized that we weren't going to lose this one," said Morgan. "We stepped it up after the first goal and we didn't let them come back."
Leroux, who represented Canada at the 2004 U-19 World Cup, and Morgan duo swept forth again in 64th minute when Morgan recovered a long ball in the corner and zipped past a defender to serve a ball for Leroux, but the shot was blocked.
Marshall, Lauren Fowlkes and holding midfielder Becky Edwards held the middle and outside backs Reed and Meghan Klingenberg secured the corners as North Korea scrambled to get back into the game. The Americans held out until Ri Ye Gyong recovered her own blocked cross and swung in a ball that Cha Hu Nam volleyed low past U.S. keeper Naeher, who hadn't conceded a goal in the tournament.
The American victory reversed a 2-1 overtime loss to North Korea in the U-17 final three weeks ago and reclaimed a title won six years ago when the USA beat Canada, 1-0, in the inaugural U-19 Women's World Championship. Four members of that U-19 U.S. team wore gold medals around their necks last August in Beijing after the Olympic women's soccer final.
DiCicco became the first coach to win titles at three different levels. He coached the Americans to the 1999 Women's World Cup title and Olympic gold at the 1996 Summer Games.
Dec. 7 in Santiago
USA 2 North Korea 1. Goal: Leroux 23, Morgan 42; Cha Hu Nam 90.
USA -- Naeher, Reed, Fowlkes, Marshall, Klingenberg, Nairn (Wells 81), Winters, Edwards, Washington (Enyeart, 65), Morgan, Leroux.
North Korea -- Kim Un Ju, Pak, Sin, Ri Un Hyang, Kim Chun Hui, Ri Ye Gyong, Choe, Ri Jong Sim (Ri Hyon Suk, 42), Hwang, Ra Un Sim, Cha.
Referee: Alexandra Ihringova (England).
adidas Golden Ball
1: Sydney Leroux (USA)
2: Alex Morgan (USA)
3: Eugenie Le Sommer (FRA)
adidas Golden Shoe
1: Sydney Leroux (USA)
2: RI Ye Gyong (PRK)
3: Alex Morgan (USA)
adidas Golden Glove
1: Alyssa Naeher (USA)
FIFA Fair Play Award