By ODEEN DOMINGO
PHOENIX — He was a redwood among twigs. And at times, a jet among blimps.
Mario Rodriguez, the United States U-17 boys national team starting forward, used his unmatched strength and deceptive speed to give Korea Republic as much trouble as the realm of reality had in trying to contain him.
Rodriguez played a part in both of the United States’ goals in a 2-1 win over the Korea Republic Wednesday night in the teams’ first of three matches in the Nike International Friendlies tournament held in north Phoenix.
Rodriguez utilized his pace to go by defenders but also used his power to hold onto possession, which frustrated the opponent. Each of Korea Republic’s first three yellow cards were drawn from fouls on Rodriguez in the second half.
“I think it was clear that Mario had a good game from the start,” US U-17 coach Wilmer Cabrera said. “He was creating options, he was strong, he was fast and going at players. And it was good for him to gain that confidence. Last year, he played here and wasn’t that confident. But now he’s improved and he showed some confidence.”
The US controlled the game for much of the first half, at times playing Barcelona to South Korea’s Real Madrid. The US scored the first goal in the 10th minute off of center midfielder Matt Dunn’s left foot. But the ball wouldn’t have reached Dunn unless Rodriguez headed down a wayward cross to Marc Pelosi whose header found a wide open Dunn at the opposite post.
Rodriguez then combined his skill and speed for his team’s second goal 27 minutes later. The North Hollywood, Calif. product took a pass from about 25 yards out, dribbled forward and split two Korea Republic defenders with three touches before rocketing a shot into the goal.
“I was in the moment,” Rodriguez said of his goal after the match. “I was really into it. I wanted to score. I’m a forward, so I have to score.”
It looked like it was indeed going to be a Barcelona-style blowout but just three minutes later, Korea Republic cut the lead in half. Shim Gwang Uk’s right-to-left outswinging corner kick to the far post found Shin Il Soo, who headed the ball for a goal.
From there, possession was more even throughout the game and the much taller Korea Republic gave the US fits on every corner kick. Still, it was the US that created the most chances, the last and best of them came in the 82nd minute when Pelosi’s free kick strike from about 35 yards out was parried over the crossbar.
After the match, Cabrera said he was pleased with his team’s performance.
“The team started off the game very well, we were in control for 40 minutes,” he said. “But after a soft goal, it gave them a boost. The second half was very tense. … But they didn’t have one chance in the second half. We created them. It was a tough game but it was good. This game is at the international level. This is the first game in a year. For the guys, the performance was good. They held the game for 90 minutes. I think it was very positive.”
— It wasn’t all good for Rodriguez. He could have scored a goal in the 18th minute when he beat Korea Republic’s last field player to a through ball and touched it around the goalkeeper. But instead of taking the ensuing touch toward the open goal, he tried to go forward more and was cleanly tackled in the penalty box.
Rodriguez also suffered a slight injury to an ankle in the 72nd minute and left the match. He said the other player kicked his Achilles and at the same time he had a cramp. He was limping after the game but he said, “I’m ready for the next game.”
— Several US players showed skill on the ball, including central attacking midfielder Alejandro Guido, defenders Andrew Souders and Kellyn Acosta and right midfielder Esteban Rodriguez.
— When asked who impressed him, Cabrera pointed out Dunn, who is from Dallas but currently plays in FC Koln’s youth system in Germany.
“It’s good to see Matt Dunn, he’s not with us (in residency), he’s in Germany but he settled very quick with the team and had a chance to score a goal and play well,” Cabrera said. “Overall, they were good as a team but it’s good to see players like Mario getting a lot of confidence.”
Cabrera also liked how his team worked together.
“They were organized the whole time,” he said. “They tried to play the ball on the ground, they tried to pass, tried to move. We tried to move the ball in their half and we created options with crosses, with shots, with intensity. So it was important that the team never looked like we were never in control.
“Obviously, they were difficult in set pieces but as we talked at halftime, we sort it out. And in the second half, we had no problem.”
— Cabrera was also asked what he wants to see from his team heading into the tournament.
“We need to prepare ourselves for World Cup qualifying,” he said. “We started with this group a year ago. They were very young.
“(This year’s games in Phoenix) are going to show us who is improving and who’s ready to compete. And not everyone will wear a national team jersey. They’re good players in the club level but we need to be sure that when you put on the national team jersey, you’re good enough to show personality and show what you can do at the international level.”
— The US plays Brazil, which drew Turkey in a drab and physical scoreless affair in Wednesday’s early game, on Friday, which will also be televised by Fox Sports Channel.
“It’s a different game,” Cabrera said of the matchup vs. Brazil. “Obviously, Brazil is a good team. And at this age, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Spain, all their players play professionally and play for their clubs. So they have more experience and more confidence and they can show that kind of skill. But we’re ready and that’s what we want. We want to play them and we want to see if we can play at the same level.”
Cabrera wouldn’t commit whether the same starting 11 would play Friday.
“We’ll see how they finish, how they feel and the recovery part,” he said. “We brought 20 players who were at a better level (than the rest at residency) and hopefully we can use them all.”