[CONCACAF UNDER-20 CHAMPIONSHIP] The USA went toe-to-tie with youth giant Mexico before falling, 3-1, in overtime in the final of the Concacaf Under-20 Championship at a packed Estadio Cuauhtemoc in Puebla.
Both teams had plenty of chances to win the game in regulation after it opened with two goals in the first 10 minutes, but Mexico finally took command in overtime after the USA tired. It entered the game with just 12 healthy field players, and Coach Tab Ramos did not make his lone sub until after Mexico went ahead in the 99th minute.
The USA opened strongly with several chances, but Mexico took the lead in the fourth minute when Jesus Corona eluded Dillon Serna's slide tackle and Javon Torre's challenge to beat Cody Cropper from short distance.
Undaunted, the USA continued to attack and Benji Joya was rewarded with a penalty kick he converted in the 10th minute.
Both teams had plenty of chances in the first half as Cropper made great saves to stop Corona and Marco Bueno and Richard Sanchez, Mexico's California-born keeper from FC Dallas, stopped Torre on a header at the near post.
Little by little, Mexico began to take command of the game, but the USA, which showed little effects of the altitude in Puebla, did have its chances in the second half. The USA had several claims for another penalty, most notably when Francisco Flores took down Mario Rodriguez. Late in regulation, Joya fed Rodriguez, whose downward header went off Sanchez's leg and over the goal.
In overtime, Mexico piled the pressure on the tiring Americans and went ahead when Julio Gomez scored with an overhead kick off a corner kick -- just like he had done in 2011 Under-17 World Cup finals (video @1:50). In the second overtime, the Tri put the game away when Jorge Espericueta scored from the penalty spot after being taken down by Juan Pablo Ocegueda. The foul came after another foul outside the area earned Shane O'Neill a red card.
With six players from its 2011 Under-17 World Cup championship team, Mexico is the standard-bearer at the youth level but Tab Ramos' U-20s more than held their own.
Indeed, it was one of the smoothest and grittiest performances ever by a U.S. youth team and portends well for the future. Joya was outstanding in the final with the kind of game that could him a very quick callup to the national team. The Los Angeles Galaxy's Jose Villarreal, Columbus Crew rookie Wil Trapp and Real Salt Lake's Luis Gilwere named to the all-tournament
Daniel Cuevas, Joya's teammate at Mexican club Santos, was the best U.S. player in its first four games but was injured in the 2-0 semifinal win over Cuba, and Ramos did not risk any further injury by bringing him on in the final.
Also absent was Gil, the USA's most experienced player who returned after the quarterfinals to play for Real Salt Lake in its MLS opener. Captain Caleb Stanko and Jerome Kiesewetter returned to their German clubs by agreement with U.S. Soccer after the quarterfinal win over Canada clinched the USA's berth in the 2013 Under-20 World Cup.
What made this matchup so intriguing was it was a veritable match of vatos, a battle of two teams whose players have grown up playing against and -- in some cases -- alongside one another. Nine of the starters on the two teams were Mexican-Americans.
Sanchez, one of six Mexico players on the all-tournament team, had played with the excellent Danny Garcia in the FC Dallas academy before Sanchez graduated to the FC Dallas first team and Garcia went on to the University of North Carolina.
Then there's the case of Mexico midfielder Uvaldo Luna, who was raised in Houston, and Ocegueda. Both played together in the Tigres' youth system when they first moved to Mexico. And both played for the U.S. and Mexico under-20s in the current cycle before picking their current allegiances.
Perhaps the only difference between the two teams was that all of Mexico's players stayed with the team for the duration of the tournament. With Gil and Stanko, the USA would have at least had a bench to match Mexico's.
March 3 in Puebla
Mexico 3 USA 1.Goal: Corona 4, Gomez 99, Espericueta 113; Joya (pen.) 10.
Mexico --Sanchez; F.Flores, Marin (Fuentes, 59), Briseno, Hernandez, Zamorano (Espericueta, 46), Bueno, Corona, Van Rankin, Luna (Gomez, 75), Madrigal.
USA --Cropper; Serna, O’Neill, Torre (Allen, 107), Ocegueda; Lopez, Trapp; Rodriguez, Joya, Garcia; Villarreal.
Yellow cards: Mexico -- Marin 10, Briseno 31; USA -- Lopez 42, Garcia 61.
Red card: USA -- O'Neill 112.
Referee:Enrico Wijgaarden (Suriname).