Saturday October 24th, 2015

The United States finished fourth in its group at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup after a 4-1 loss to host nation Chile on Friday. The result caps a frustrating tournament in which the U.S. lost to Nigeria, 2-0, before relinquishing a two-goal lead and drawing with Croatia, 2-2, in the previous games.

The U.S. scored first, in the 10th minute, with Brandon Vázquez pouncing on the final mistake in a series of them from the Chilean defenders to poke home his second goal of the tournament. The lead only lasted 10 minutes, though, as captain Marcelo Allende’s deflected shot equalized on an equally poor defensive play in the American penalty area.

From there, Chile controlled the majority of possession and the tempo of the game, spurred on by a sizable home crowd at the Estadio Sausalito. Just after halftime, La Rojita scored what would be the winning goal.

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After substitute Luciano Díaz slipped a nice ball through the U.S. back line, Gabriel Mazuela slid into a duel with goalkeeper Will Pulišić. The ball appeared to come off Mazuela’s hand as he stuck it out to break his fall, pushing it out of Pulišić’s reach and enabling him to tuck it home.

Gonzalo Jara iced it in the 86th minute, cutting in from the right to curl a brilliant left-footed shot over Pulišić and into the back of the net. Mazuela crossed for center back Camilo Moya to finish in stoppage time, just before the final whistle, to finalize the scoring.

With the result, the U.S. finishes at the bottom of Group A with just one point. Here are three thoughts on the match and the U.S.’s performance in the tournament:

1. Regardless of the handball, Chile deserved to win: This script has played out far too many times in major competitions for the U.S.: the opponent clearly outclasses the Americans, who put up a good fight and make it difficult but still fall short in the end. This match in particular looked a lot like the U.S.’s win over Ghana at last summer’s senior World Cup, the difference being Chile managed to score and hold it down in the back after conceding early.

The Chileans finished with 54% possession, enjoying a 60-40 advantage for much of the game after conceding 10 minutes in. From then, Chile completely dictated the way the game played out, and La Rojita finished with 19 shot attempts to the U.S.’s nine.

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Chile didn’t attack with great numbers for most of the game despite keeping more of the ball in the back and middle thirds in particular. Its attack looked disconnected, relying on diagonal balls toward the fullbacks and two or three players pulling off combinations more often than an obviously orchestrated build-up to goal.

But it somehow worked out. A U.S. mistake, an excellent through ball and a quality finish was all Chile needed to score three times on Friday, followed by a fourth as the Americans pressed at the end.

2. A talented U.S. team didn’t come together for this tournament: Some individuals shined through for the U.S. in this tournament, but the collective play was nowhere near good enough in any of the three matches. The Christian Pulišić hype train will only pick up steam as he returns to Borussia Dortmund. Danny Barbir, bizarrely benched for the first game, looked solid for much of his time on the field.

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Beyond that, it was a pretty meek performance. Vázquez scored a couple goals, but he also missed a sitter against Croatia that could have killed the game off for the U.S. Haji Wright, the New York Cosmos forward who was expected to lead the attack, hardly played a role.

The team came into this World Cup with a lot of confidence in its own ability, but the product on the field didn’t match that level of self-assuredness. U.S. coach Richie Williams shouldn’t escape blame either, as his head-scratching selections stifled the team all tournament long and directly impacted at least one result when Auston Trusty started the first game.

3. It’s been a bleak year for the U.S. youth program: Once again, it’s time for U.S. Soccer to take a serious look at its player development initiatives. Sure, the federation is proud of its Development Academy, giving it the tag of being “world class” at the top of the website and in promotional materials, but the results say otherwise, and that goes all the way up the pyramid. 

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The U-17s’ last-place group finish is the last in a line of poor results this calendar year for the young American teams, mirroring their senior counterpart’s fourth-place finish at the Gold Cup and loss to Mexico in the Confederations Cup playoff.

The U-20s fell in the quarterfinals of their World Cup earlier this year, and performed inconsistently throughout. The U-23s lost to Honduras in the Olympic qualifying semifinal for an automatic ticket to Rio 2016, and the U-18s notably finished fifth in the 2015 Nordic Open Cup in August, losing to Iceland and Sweden in the group stage.

Something has to change in order for the U.S. to compete with the game’s global powers.

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