The United States’ run in the 2015 FIFA Under-20 World Cup ended in football’s cruelest manner, a penalty shootout, against Serbia in the quarterfinals on Sunday. After a scoreless draw through 120 minutes with a shorthanded team, the Americans lost 6-5 from the spot, missing three of their last four efforts.
With Mali beating tournament favorite Germany, also on penalties, just before the U.S. kicked off, the path to the final of an international tournament looked clear. The U.S.’s start elucidated it further, but as the Auckland skies let loose a downpour on a cold and windy day, the trail became obscured by Serbia’s increasing control over the match.
Bright beginnings to both halves slowly slipped away until Serbia repeatedly threatened to score, eventually outshooting the U.S. 19-8. American goalkeeper Zack Steffen saved several chances in normal time, including a few from Andrija Živković’s excellent set pieces. The Serbians had their own stout defense to rely on. Anchored by captain Predrag Rajković in goal, the team has conceded just two goals all tournament.
As momentum swung in Serbia's direction, the U.S. struggled to regain control. A midfield that looked dynamic early began to stagnate, with neither of central pair Emerson Hyndman and Gedion Zelalem playing to their full potential against an organized Serbian defense. The U.S.’s breaks forward became more and more sporadic, with Tommy Thompson nearly connecting on a spin-and-shoot inside the six-yard box in the 73rd minute. It was the U.S.’s best chance to score.
The U.S. played with a handicap from the start, short four players on the bench. Maki Tall left the tournament after the first game with an injury, joined by Bradford Jamieson IV after the round of 16. Jordan Allen and Kellyn Acosta picked up card-accumulation suspensions.
Manager Tab Ramos could only make one change, bringing Joel Soñora on for Thompson in the 102nd minute, before all that remained at his disposal were the two back-up goalkeepers and two central defenders.
Still, Serbia deserved its victory. The Eagles pinged the ball out of the back with precision and confidence, circulating possession not unlike the great Yugoslavia teams of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Its coach, Veljko Paunović, came out of retirement as a player in 2011 to join Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union after going on trial with the New York Red Bulls two years prior. He played one season in MLS before calling it quits again, permanently this time.
After the first half-hour, the U.S. often failed to get any of its four central midfielders facing forward on the ball when building out of defense. The players’ desire remained, but the team quickly became overrun by Serbian pressure and reverted into a defensive shape.
Not that the Serbians were any better around the goal than their American counterparts. Most notably, in the 96th minute, substitute forward Ivan Saponjić found the ball on his foot just inches from the goal off Stanisa Mandić’s slashing cross, but it rolled through him as if he wasn’t there at all.
That personified Serbia’s relentless pressure, particularly after the hour mark: it got as close as possible without actually scoring, even whiffing on a chance that should have been easier to put away than miss.
Ultimately, it became the same story as last summer’s elimination from the World Cup for the senior U.S. team: without Steffen, it’s likely the younger Americans lose by a bigger margin. He didn’t match Tim Howard’s 15-save performance from the round of 16 against Belgium, but Steffen did come up big in the shootout.
Opposite number Rajković stepped up to take Serbia’s sixth penalty with the score knotted at 4-4. Soñora had just smacked his shot off the right corner of the frame where goalpost meets crossbar, and Rajković signaled to the bench that he wanted to have a chance at being the hero.
Instead, Steffen stopped him, diving to his right.
Two shots later, 17-year-old center back Cameron Carter-Vickers rocketed his effort out of the television frame. Again, Steffen rescued his team by stopping Miloš Veljković’s shot.
But after Rajković saved John Requejo’s subsequent shot, Steffen’s magic ran out. Nemanja Maksimović’s shot nestled into the top left-hand corner—only a near-perfect hit could beat the keen American goalkeeper—and Serbia rushed the field to celebrate.
As intoxicating as the previous week has been for the U.S. program, defeating the Netherlands and Germany at the senior level and seeing the U-20s advance to the last eight, Sunday’s match marked something of a return to the norm. This team’s win in the round of 16 against Colombia, composed and professional as it was, now looks like an outlier in a process that has again seen the U.S. struggle against smaller nations with fewer resources.
The U-20s needed a playoff match against El Salvador to make the World Cup, after tying Guatemala and losing to Panama in the group stage. Myanmar outplayed the Americans early in the first game in New Zealand, and Ukraine won handily in the last group match.
Despite the setbacks, at least a couple of the players from the U-20 team should receive additional opportunities in the near future. Olympic qualifying takes place in the fall, and Steffen, Hyndman, Zelalem and Rubio Rubín look poised to step up to the U-23s.
Carter-Vickers would normally be another candidate, but at such a young age even for his age group in New Zealand, that seems to be more of a stretch. His play at the tournament both in defense and with the ball deserves special mention, though.
The final grade on this U-20 team, believed to be one of the most talented in the nation’s history, won’t be in for a long time. Despite a fair amount of disjointedness as a team, individuals will continue to differentiate themselves in the years to come.
If a small handful of them emerge as major players for the senior team, a quarterfinal finish suddenly looks much better. For now, it looks like a missed opportunity for the Americans collectively, considering the way the road ahead set up for them before they even kicked off against Serbia.
Still, the best team won on Sunday, and that continues to be the U.S.’s biggest obstacle: finding a way to rise above challenges (read: much smaller nations) that the program should be able to conquer.