The U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team entered Sunday’s match feeling confident. Set for the toughest test of their U-20 World Cup, the U.S. truly felt like they were nearing something special. They would be tested, sure, but the young group of Americans had belief.
That test, a quarterfinal match with Venezuela proved too great, too tall. The luck was certainly there for the Americans, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a gut-wrenching elimination from a tournament the U.S. truly believed it could win.
After a 90 minute period of largely one-way soccer, Venezuela finally found the back of the net in extra time en route to a 2-1 win over the U.S. that sent the Americans out of the World Cup at the quarterfinal round. It was the second-straight quarterfinal elimination for the U.S. U-20s, but one just as painful as 2015’s loss to eventual champions Serbia.
“This group of guys, we’ve grown so close together,” said captain Erik Palmer-Brown. “Being with them for over two years, you grow a bond with them that you’re not going to grow with a lot of people. These guys are my brothers. We’re family now.”
“(Venezuela was) a good team, one of the best teams we played in this tournament. It’s tough. Tough to swallow right now.”
The reason it was so tough to swallow? Despite all of the Venezuela chances, close calls and missed opportunities, the U.S. had their shot. On what turned out to be the last kick of the initial 90 minutes, it was Palmer-Brown that was just inches from putting the U.S. through. His headed chance, the first truly great attempt for the Americans, was a last-gasp chance to win a game they had no business winning. Instead it became a missed opportunity to steal a match that was somehow ripe for the taking.
Much of the credit goes to Jonathan Klinsmann, who made big save after big save. The young goalkeeper was resolute in a match that saw his side outshot, 26-7. Despite a quick burst in the final 10 or so minutes of regulation, the U.S. was largely pinned back. Palmer-Brown said the team’s fitness helped get them through those moments while head coach Tab Ramos said it was heart but, in the end, fitness and heart weren’t enough.
Adalberto Penaranda’s extra time finish took advantage of a momentary lapse to put the Venezuelans up, 1-0. Nahuel Ferraressi’s header doubled that advantage before Jeremy Ebobisse’s looping header of his own gave the U.S. life with just minutes remaining. It wasn’t enough, though, as Venezuela’s defense held on despite conceding its first goal of the tournament.
“I think it was an extremely hard-working team,” Ramos said of Venezuela. “They seemed to get to the ball first a lot of the time. Any time we put them under pressure, they seemed to always win that second ball, and it became very difficult for us to hold onto the ball. They pretty much ran the game.
“It was certainly one of the better ones. I thought they had a very good player in every position and looked like a very experienced, hard, committed team.”
That team now has a very real chance of winning a U-20 World Cup as they head into a semifinal match with Uruguay but, for the U.S., that dream has ended.
There will no doubt be dissection in the months and years to come as the team returns to their respective clubs. The tournament was, in many ways, a strong display from the U.S. side, one that certainly features several players to keep an eye on as they push towards senior careers.
But the dream is over. The chance at winning a World Cup, one of the program’s best ever chances, ended with a thud and a loss to a better team.
“I think this is a group of players and an age group that has a lot of talent and a lot of players with tons of potential looking into the future,” Ramos said. “From that standpoint, we have to be happy with that. We were, I think for the first time at a World Cup, competitive enough to think we could win it. We came here thinking we could win it.
“I think we represented ourselves well. I think we ran into a very difficult team but that doesn’t takeaway from the fact that this team had a great cycle and that we have a lot of very good players.”