The USA's quest to reach the semifinals of the U-20 Men's World Cup for the second time in 17 appearances — Coach Bob Gansler's squad finished fourth in 1989 — ended with a 2-0 loss to Uruguay on Sunday.
After four straight shutouts wins, the USA conceded its first goal when a swift Uruguayan counterattack culminated with Anderson Duarte stroking into an empty net from close range a low pass from winger Juan Santos that sped past keeper Gaga Slonina guarding the near post.
"We got caught in a counter," U.S. coach Mikey Varas said. "We got caught combining through the middle. This was their game, to counter quickly on the final line."
Justin Che was left on ground after his futile slide-tackle attempt as Santos met the ball a few yards outside the U.S. penalty area.
"Uruguay made an amazing play on it," Varas said. "We didn't have anybody at any moment, from the beginning of it to the end, who was able to make a big play.
"But what I think the more important thing was that the first goal, because it kind of came against the flow — we started the game pretty positively — I think it rattled the group a little bit. We started losing control of the game for a big portion of that first half and we weren't able to threaten much after that moment in the first half.
"We were able to resettle, regroup, and I thought the boys came out and dealt with the adversity much better in the second half."
But in the 56th minute, Joshua Wynder's attempt to clear a similar delivery by Santos ended up in his own goal.
The USA's run to quarterfinals included two opponents from the world's weakest region, Oceania, and it dispatched of Fiji (3-0) in group play and New Zealand (4-0) in the round of 16. Neither Ecuador, which the USA beat 1-0 in the opener, nor Slovakia, a 2-0 loser to the USA, defended as adeptly as the Uruguayans.
"You can only play who you got in front of you," Varas said. "If you drop points against Fiji, Slovakia or New Zealand, nobody says, 'It's OK.' It's a World Cup and there's a lot of pressure to win every single game, and I think the boys did tremendous in this tournament. We just weren't on our best tonight."
In Sunday's game, U.S. passes were often intercepted in midfield, and the Uruguayans retreated quickly in numbers to stifle the Americans when they got close to or into the penalty area.
Cade Cowell, who scored in three straight games going into the quarterfinal, was the only U.S. player who managed more than one shot.
He shot high in the 48th minute, weakly to the keeper Randall Rodríguez in the 63rd minute and forced a foot save by Rodríguez from a narrow angle in the 65th minute. His 11-yard shot in the 78th minute looked goal-bound but was blocked by teammate Rokas Pukstas in the goal area.
The game ended with teams tied on shots (11-11) and the Uruguayans showed no indication of being disadvantaged by having two fewer days rest than the USA.
Pukstas and Kevin Paredes didn't join the squad until the knockout stage because of club commitments. Neither started. Parades came on at halftime for Owen Wolff and Pukstas replaced Michael Halliday in the 54th minute.
The loss marked the third straight U-20 World Cup in which the USA fell in the quarterfinals to a South America foe: 2-1 losses to Ecuador in 2019 and Venezuela in 2017. (In the 2015 quarterfinals, the USA fell to eventual champion Serbia, on PKs after a scoreless tie).
Uruguay, which qualified as South American runner-up to Brazil, finished second in Group E, with wins over Iraq (4-0) and Tunisia (1-0) sandwiching a 3-2 loss to England. Uruguay beat Gambia (1-0) in the round of 16. (Group E winner England lost, 2-1, to Italy in the round of 16.)
In the semifinals on Thursday, Uruguay faces Israel and Italy squares off with South Korea.
This year's tournament, hosted by Argentina, came after the 2021 U-20 World Cup and 2021 U-17 World Cup were canceled because of COVID.
"Most of these players were U-17 or U-18 players during the past cycle, so they lost a good two-year period of national team programming," Varas said, "which means a lot of them lost the opportunity to play in a U-17 World Cup. So this is their first experience representing the country in such a high-stakes environment — aside from qualifiers. This experience will guarantee that all of them will be better the next time they're in a similar situation."
Varas' team qualified for the 2023 U-20 World Cup by winning the 2022 Concacaf U-20 Championship, which also qualified the USA for the 2024 Olympics. The USA had failed to reach the Olympics, a U-23 competition, since the 2008 Games in China.
"Something that we spoke about in the locker room immediately after was," Varas said, "I hope that this pain that we feel right now — because this one is not gonna go away anytime soon — is something that we reflect on deeply that we gain something from it. That we use that as a catalyst to pursue greatness as individuals. I really believe in this group from a mentality perspective.
"All of these hard moments are what ends up making you better later. We know that they'll all have a good chance of succeeding at the next level, which is the Olympic team and the senior team.
"If these guys stay hungry and relentless from an individual standpoint. I think the sky is a limit for a lot of them."
June 4 in Santiago del Estero, Argentina
USA 2 Uruguay 0. Goals: Duarte 21, own goal (Wynder) 56)
USA — Slonina; Che, Craig, Wynder (Gomez, 69); Halliday (Pukstas, 54), McGlynn, Vargas (Edelman, 54), Wiley (Sullivan, 70); Wolff (Parades, 46), Luna, Cowell.
Uruguay — R.Rodriquez; Ponte, Boselli, Franco Gonzalez, Matturro; Chagas, Diaz (Homenchenko, 77), Facundo Gonzalez, Sosa (Garcia, 69), Santos (De Ritas, 77); Duarte (Siri, 57).
Yellow cards: USA — none. Uruguay — Homenchenko 82, De Ritas 90+3. Red cards: none.
Referee: Serdar Gozubuyuk (Netherlands). ARs: Erwin Zeinstra (Netherlands), Johan Balder (Netherlands). Fourth Official: Yusuke Araki )Japan). VAR: Fedayi San (Switzerland).