By Paul Kennedy
What should we make of the USA's exit at the hands of North Korea in the quarterfinals of the Under-20 Women's World Cup?
If you go back over the seven U-20 tournaments, the USA won in 2002, 2008 (beating North Korea in the final) and 2012 and lost in shootouts to China in 2006, Nigeria in 2010 and North Korea this year. That means the 3-1 loss to Germany in the 2004 semifinals in Thailand is the only time the USA has lost in the knockout stage of the Under-20 Women's World Cup -- not a bad record.
If the goal of a youth national team is to develop a couple of players for the next level each cycle, the 2014 U-20s should pass the test as Lindsey Horan, already capped for the senior national team, is a big-time prospect up front. Rose Lavelle showed for much of the tournament she has a bright future in midfield. And 16-year-old Mallory Pugh -- eligible for the next two U-20 World Cups -- is legit.
But what was disturbing was the overall level of play from the Americans at the tournament. For a program that has high expectations, the tools of many of the players were shockingly poor. Then again, this is nothing new as women's soccer experts have been warning that the technical qualities of players coming through the ranks are deficient.
That is especially worrying as other countries are starting to move ahead of the USA. The USA-Germany opener was a back-and-forth game with plenty of chances by both teams, but the Germans were in the end deserved winners by 2-0. Germany is a known quantity in women's soccer, but other European countries -- namely France (the only unbeaten and untied team after the group stage) and Spain (runner-up at this year's U-17 World Cup) -- have been making tremendous strides.
Many sporting and social factors have inhibited the development of women's soccer in Africa, but Nigeria, a 4-1 winner over New Zealand in Sunday's U-20 quarterfinals, is again in the final four. That North Korea was the better team on Saturday in Toronto should come as no surprise, given the depth of the competition in Asia. Arguably the most talented U-20 team in the world is Japan -- winner of 3-2 and 3-0 decisions over the USA in 2013 -- and it didn't even qualify out of the 2013 U-19 AFC tournament for Canada 2014.
One of the huge challenges for U.S. women's soccer is the poor level of competition at the regional level. One of the big reasons Mexico and Costa Rica, as well as the USA, did so well at this year's World Cup in Brazil is the competition they got in the Hexagonal. They all made each other better teams. Nothing of the like could be said about the competition the U.S. U-20 and U-17 women faced in Concacaf, where they finished up with 29-0 and 26-1 scoring margins, respectively, in the current cycle.
The crazy thing, of course, is that the U-17s didn't even qualify, falling to Mexico in a shootout in the semifinals after their game finished 1-1.
Our pick six
With three goals in the FC Dallas 5-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday, Tesho Akindele out of the NCAA Division II Colorado School of Mines now has seven goals and one assists in 16 games and is making a strong case for MLS Rookie of the Year. If he wins the award, Akindele, born to a Nigerian father and Canadian mother and raised outside Denver, would be just the second small college product to win the award after Rodrigo Faria of New York, the 2001 winner out of NAIA Concordia (N.Y.) College.
The top first-year MLS player from the lower ranks of American pro soccer is also a Division II product: Englishman Luke Mulholland, who attended Wingate before spending four seasons in USL and the NASL. He had another big game for RSL in its 2-1 win over Seattle on Saturday.
Rounding out our pick six of current MLS players out of the small college ranks are U.S. World Cup forward Chris Wondolowski(San Jose), named to the NCAA Division II 40th Anniversary Tribute Team out of Chico State, Davy Arnaud(D.C. United) from Division II West Texas A&M, Kenyan Lawrence Olum (Sporting Kansas City) from Missouri Baptist and Jamaican Shaun Francis (San Jose) from NAIA powerhouse Lindsey Wilson.
You only had to check ESPN FC on your smartphone Saturday morning to see how important the EPL is to ESPN -- even if it isn't the live rights-holder. Check any game, and ESPN FC displayed video of each goal. Why bother searching around the NBC web site when everything is conveniently displayed on each EPL game page at ESPN FC?
This comes as the next battleground on the Internet takes shape: the EPL has warned that it will crack down on individuals posting Vines and Gifs of goals and incidents. "I know it sounds as if we’re killjoys," the EPL's Don Johnsontold the BBC, "but we have to protect our intellectual property.”
-- Everyone's favorite game this season, it seems, is going to be to relish in Manchester United's misfortunes. The Metro presented the memes that flooded Twitter in the aftermath of United's 2-1 loss to Swansea City in new manager Louis van Gaal's opener. As the Football Bible pointed out with a photo of a crazed David Moyes, "Hey, Louis guess what? Even I won my first game!"
-- Bruce Feiler's This Life column in the New York Times does not address a new topic, but he warns about the dangers of youth soccer -- and other competitive youth sports -- controlling the lives of our children. Parents all fear the "M" word, mandatory, as in mandatory practice or mandatory tryouts. At what age should they become mandatory?