Ever since the US began their preparations for the Under-17 World Cup, they have been on the tenterhooks. First, it was the hurricanes. Then, hours after landing in India, they learnt about the tragic Las Vegas shootout. And just when it seemed their campaign was well and truly on track, they were dealt with another blow – the failure of their senior team to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. “Our team is always expected to be at the World Cup, and for us, it is unacceptable that we did not qualify,” USA under-17 coach John Hackworth said last week in Mumbai.
The Stars and Stripes needed only a draw against Trinidad and Tobago to secure a direct berth for Russia 2018 but suffered a 2-1 defeat instead. The senior team’s failure has put the under-17s under the radar and the pressure has ratcheted higher. “It puts a little more focus (from fans) on our team because this is their hope now. It’s their way to say, ‘we are not on a downward spiral, we are on an upward curve’,” said Hackworth. “But it’s tough for 17-year-old boys to understand what that pressure means at this point in time.”
Perhaps their first brush with ‘pressure’ will be when they step on the newly-laid surface of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Monday to take on Paraguay. While USA have met with hurdles at almost every step, Paraguay have been rewarded for their painstaking attention to detail. Before coming to India, the team had practice sessions at 2am, ate their lunch at 7.30am and slept at noon. “The time difference between India and Paraguay is a lot, around eight and a half hours. So we had to do these things to prepare our players,” coach Gustavo Morinigo said on Sunday.
The results are apparent. They aren’t the most glamorous South American side but Paraguay have been the most potent of the quartet here in India, playing a brand of football that belies the claims of their senior team being dull and defensive. They have topped Group B after winning all their matches and ending the first stage as the third-highest goalscorers (10), behind France and England.
Paraguay have had seven different players scoring in the wins over Mali, New Zealand and Turkey in the group stage, with strikers Anibal Vega and Antonio Galeano leading the charge. But they will be tested by a US team that has had one of the best defences in the group stage.
The Americans began the tournament with focus firmly on their attack but it is the defence that has stood out for them. They have conceded just three goals in as many games, all against Colombia. New York City FC midfielder James Sands anchoring the central defense, while DC United’s Chris Durkin has been equally good – even earning the man of the match against India.
While the hosts did not stretch the US defence, save for the one attempt by Aniket Jadhav late in the game, Ghana were more relentless and it took a couple of last-ditch interventions for them to keep a clean-sheet and get three points after Ayo Akinola scored the only goal of the match. Hackworth said the conditions in Navi Mumbai played a crucial role in them succumbing to a 3-1 defeat to Colombia.
Although US’s hyped attack has not delivered yet, they will fancy their chances against Paraguay, who have conceded five goals, including two each to Mali and New Zealand.
It, however, boils down to momentum. And while Paraguay look solid on the back of three consecutive wins, the defeat to Colombia seems to have dampened the confidence US had after winning their first two matches.
Hackworth said the fans back home will start noticing the proceedings in India this stage onward. In the US, ‘soccer’ goes ‘under the radar’ since the focus has always been on league sports, such as the NBA (Basketball) and NFL (American football). And it’s only at World Cups that the sport gets attention.
That scrutiny has increased mid-tournament, especially after the senior team’s debacle. “The pressure, because of the (senior team) result, has stepped up,” Hackworth said.
PARaguay vs USA: Live on Sony Ten 2 — 2000 hrs onwards