By FRANCO PANIZO
The U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team saw its World Cup run come to a dramatic and heartbreaking end on Sunday, losing by the slimmest of margins.
The U.S. and Serbia went to penalty kicks after playing to a scoreless draw in their quarterfinal bout at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland, but it was the Serbs who prevailed, 6-5, after nine intense rounds of shots from the spot.
Nemanja Maksimovic converted the winning attempt with an authoritative blast, and it followed a weak low effort from John Requejo that was saved easily by Serbia goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic.
Serbia had other earlier opportunities to win the penalty shootout, but U.S. netminder Zack Steffen put forth a heroic effort to keep the Americans alive. Steffen denied Rajkovic’s sudden-death penalty kick in the sixth round, and also stopped Milos Veljokvic on Serbia’s eighth attempt.
Tab Ramos’ side was ultimately outdone by its inability to convert penalties. Rubio Rubin started the shootout with a poor attempt that Rajkovic pounced on effortlessly, and Joel Sonora smacked his look off the woodwork with the U.S.’s sixth shot. Cameron Carter-Vickers and Requejo then missed in the final two rounds.
The Americans made forced the shootout after holding firm defensively for 120 minutes. Serbia was the more aggressive and energetic side, especially as the match wore on, but the U.S stayed compact and limited the Serbs’ goal-scoring opportunities.
The U.S. attack was not nearly as good. Though they did create some chances, including a late look in regulation, the Americans struggled to test Rajkovic with any regularity before fading in the added 30 minutes.
Rubio Rubin nearly found a winner just before the initial 90 minutes came to a close, but his low attempt in stoppage time from the left side of the penalty area was too weak to seriously test Rajkovic.
The Serbs had a glorious look of their own minutes earlier. Stanisa Mandic fed Ivan Saponjic in front of goal the 85th minute, only to see the substitute go off the mark with his low attempt in front of the open U.S. goal.
Steffen was also called into action a number of times to keep the Americans level, including on a dipping, 68th-minute free kick that he pushed away with his right hand.
Mandic also tested Steffen eight minutes before the end of result, but the SC Freiburg youngster reacted well to block the shot.
Tommy Thompson, who started up top in place of the injured Bradford Jamieson, was inches away from giving the Americans the lead in the 73rd minute. He received a pass from the right, but just couldn’t reach the ball on a turning effort.
Thompson also came close in the 41st minute when he received a low cross from Paul Arriola and hit a shot that curled just wide of the far post.
Neither side created much danger in the added 30 minutes, which paved the way for the dramatic shootout that saw Steffen shine and the U.S. penalty takers miss four of their chances.
The Americans finish their campaign at the World Cup with a 3-1-1 record, six goals for, and four against.
Serbia will now face Mali, which stunned Germany in penalty kicks hours earlier, in the semifinals.
What did you think of the U.S.’s penalty-kick defeat to Serbia? Which players impressed/disappointed you in this game? Are you pleased with the tournament the Americans had?