It's difficult to imagine the USA going far at the U-17 World Cup based on their second-half performance on Tuesday against Croatia, which overcame a 2-0 halftime deficit for a 2-2 final score that flattered the Americans. But, despite opening with a 2-0 loss to Nigeria, the USA has a clear path to the second round -- beating host Chile on Friday.
Since the biennial U-17 World Cup expanded from 16 to 24 teams in 2007, the top two finishers of the six groups qualify for the second round along with the best four third-place finishers, and never has a team failed to advance to the knockout stage with four points. A win over the Chileans would give the USA four points. A loss and Coach Richie Williams' team will be the first U.S. squad to exit in the group play since 2001. (Williams failed to qualify the USA for the 2013 U-17 World Cup.)
How lucky was the USA to escape with a tie on Tuesday? Croatia hit the post three times, including twice in stoppage time, after Luka Ivanusec scored the 2-2 equalizer in the 77th minute.Highlights:
In a first half, Croatia threatened mainly with long-range shots handled by U.S. goalkeeper William Pulisic, and the Americans went ahead on goals in the 20th and 40th minutes. Christian Pulisic was instrumental in both.
After Josh Perez delivered the ball to Luca de la Torre streaking through the middle, three Croatians converged on de la Torre as he stroked the ball into Pulisic’s path. His low shot from 12 yards beat the diving keeper Adrian Semper for the USA’s first goal of the tournament.
Pulisic, who had been attacking mainly from the left, appeared on the right wing five minutes before halftime and drove in a cross that Brandon Vazquez headed hard into the net from seven yards out. Vazquez had missed an open-net sitter from five yards four minutes earlier.
While the USA managed a slight edge (53%-47%) in first-half possession, the second half was stunningly lop-sided in Croatia’s favor.
The Croatians out-shot the USA 18-1 in the final 45 minutes after an 11-5 edge in the first half. The full game possession stats favored Croatia 57%-43%. (The Croatians had 14 corner kicks to the USA's 4).
"I can't explain what happened in the second half," Williams said in the postgame press conference. "In the first we scored twice and had some other chances, but above all we were able to keep control of the ball. I don't think my players were overconfident at 2-0, but they lost their composure: you can't defend a whole match against a team as good as that and who put that much pressure on you like Croatia. At the end, not everything is bad, we have one point and we can still advance."
Desperate goalmouth clearances and saves by William Pulisic kept the Croatians at bay until the 65th minute when Ivanusec beat left back John Nelson to Borna Sosa’s high cross. The deflection landed conveniently for Karlo Majic to slam home from six yards.
Croatia continued to its torment of the U.S. defense, especially on right back Tyler Adams’ side, from where Josip Brekalo broke through to lay on a ball that Ivanusec struck into the net from 19 yards.
Can this U.S. team beat the Chileans? The hosts tied Croatia, 1-1, in their opener, but weren't outplayed like the Americans. Chile matched the Croatians in scoring chances and had more possession. The Chileans will have 20,000 home fans behind them. But also lots of pressure. After falling 5-1 to Nigeria on Tuesday, Chile too needs a win to avoid ouster.
Oct. 20 in Vina del Mar
USA 2 Croatia 2. Goals: C.Pulisic (de la Torre) 20, Vasquez (C.Pulisic) 40; Majic 65, Ivanusec (Brekalo) 77.
USA – W. Pulisic; Adams, Arellano, Barbir, Nelson; McCabe, de la Torre (Wright, 83), C. Pulisic, Zendejas; Vasquez (Gallardo 75), Perez (Calvillo, 68).
Croatia -- Semper, Sosa, Erlic (Dira, 44), Kalaica, Soldo, Brekalo, Durasek (Ivanusec, 44), Majic (Babic, 83), Moro, Lovren, Sverko.
Croatia coach Dario Basic: "If you offered the draw at halftime, I would have taken it. But after how we played the second half, we deserved the victory. In the first half we defended poorly and they scored two goals out of three shoots, but we had our chances. Then we asked for the heart of our players and they responded with personality and also with talent. Either you believe or not in luck, today it was not on our side." -- FIFA.com
U-17 World Cup: TV Schedule & Results
Brazil, the second most successful nation at the U-17 World Cup with three titles to Nigeria's four, recovered from its 1-0 opening loss to South Korea with a 1-0 win over England, which started with a 1-1 tie with Guinea. ... Two-time U-17 World Cup champion Mexico, which opened with a 2-0 win over Argentina, faces Australia on Wednesday (3:30 pm ET, Telemundo, FS2).