[UNDER-20 WORLD CUP] One good outing (against an albeit weak opponent) couldn't make up for two horrendous performances, and the USA exited the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt on Saturday, marking the first time since 1987 that the Americans didn't make it out of the first round.
After Friday's 3-0 loss to South Korea, the Americans still had a slim chance of advancing, but their hopes were extinguished Saturday night when the Czech Republic defeated Costa Rica, 3-2. The result was what the USA wanted but not the scoreline. The Ticos went through on the second tiebreaker -- goals scored (5-8 vs. 4-7) -- and claimed the fourth and final spot for the tournament's third-place teams. Thus ended a not unexpected but nonetheless discouraging campaign for the USA.
Since the USA failed to reach the knockout phase at Chile '87 with a team that included future national team stars Tony Meola, Marcelo Balboa and Jeff Agoos, it had advanced at every under-20 world championship in which it participated, most notably two years later when Silver Ball winner Kasey Keller helped the USA to fourth place in Saudi Arabia.
Coach Thomas Rongen led the USA to the quarterfinals in 2003 in the UAE and 2007 in Canada, but he couldn't lead the U-20s to the round of 16 in Egypt. In 2003, Rongen's U-20s were seconds away from defeating Argentina (which included Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano) in the quarterfinals. Two years ago, the U-20s beat Poland (6-1), Brazil (2-1) and Uruguay (2-1) before falling to Austria (2-1 in overtime).
Not much was expected of Rongen's '09 U-20s, who lacked a genuine star or a core of experienced pros, but two brutal performances against Germany and South Korea mean that Rongen will unlikely be retained. The Under-20 World Cup is supposed to be a showcase for players seeking international exposure, but the U.S. U-20s hardly helped their cause.
Ike Opara was projected to be a top five pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft if he had come out, but he chose to return to Wake Forest this fall for his junior season and endured a nightmare in Egypt, conceding penalties against Cameroon and South Korea and getting sent off against South Korea. Sheanon Williams had left North Carolina after one season but hardly improved his reputation, being responsible for the second Korean goal just before halftime and picking up two yellow cards in two games. Brek Shea, one of five FC Dallas players initially chosen for the team, was supposed to be one of the U-20 leaders, but he was awful much of the time.
Pleasant surprises? Players like Dilly Duka and Tony Taylor, not previously part of the national youth team program, had their moments, as did Bryan Arguez and Jared Jeffrey, Duka's partners in the middle of midfield for the last two games. Gale Agbossoumonde, only 17, showed some promise.
But what was most discouraging was that this was basically all the USA had to offer at the under-20 level. At least England (the only one of six European teams to exit after the first round) had the excuse for another miserable showing (its 88th-minute goal Saturday against Uzbekistan ended an 848-minute scoring drought!) that its best U-20 players (Theo Walcott among them) were all back home. The same goes for the rest of Europe's big four -- Italy, Germany and Spain -- and Brazil.
But the USA? Except for Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu, both Canada '07 standouts, there were few U-20 alternatives Rongen could have turned to.
The weakness in the '09 class is indeed worrying. Why worry about the U-20s? Because they have been an important building block to the national team program over the last decade. Eleven of the 13 players who started in the recent World Cup qualifying wins over El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago had represented the USA at the Under-20 World Cup in the last decade, and a 12th player, Charlie Davies, played for the USA in qualifying for the 2005 Under-20 World Cup. (The lone exception: Jonathan Bornstein.)
It's hard to project any of the U.S. U-20s on display in Suez being future national team starters any time soon.
Oct. 2 in Suez
USA 0 South Korea 3.
KOR - Kim Young-Gwon (Moon Ki-Han) 23
KOR - Kim Bo-Kyung (Park Hee-Seong) 42
KOR - Koo Ja-Cheol (pen.) 75
USA -- Perk, Williams, Agbossoumonde, Opara, Flores, Jeffrey (Davies, 73), Arguez (Diskerud, 62), Duka, Cruz, Taylor (Marosevic, 46), Shea.
South Korea -- Kim Seung-Gyu, Oh (Lee Seung-Yeoul, 52), Kim Min-Woo, Kim Young-Gwon, Hong, Koo, 11-Seo Jung-Jin, Moon, Yun, Kim Bo-Kyung, Park.
Yellow Cards: USA -- Agbossoumonde 29, Arguez 48, Opara 66, Opara 74, Davies 76, Shea 78, Williams 90.
Red Card: USA -- Opara 74.
Referee: Roberto Rosetti (ITA)