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FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup loss rings early alarm bells for U.S. Soccer

It was only one game, and it was a tense, hard-fought affair, and it took place against a rival opponent ranked at (or near, depending on who you ask) the top of the world rankings.

But the U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team – and the rest of the country’s women’s soccer establishment – should be quite concerned by Tuesday’s 2-0 loss to Germany at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Canada. And not just because it complicates their path to the knockout stages of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.

Again, and it’s important to emphasize this point right from the top, this is only 90 minutes of a tournament that comprises 270 of them at the very least – and in the case of this group of U.S. teenagers, it’s supposed to run far longer, as they enter Canada 2014 as a clear favorite for a podium place.

But despite the fact that they competed tigerishly against their trophy rivals until the final stages and could’ve earned a point, or maybe even three, had their finishing been crisper, coach Michelle French’s side didn’t look particularly well-prepared for the match. Nor were they set up to succeed in terms of their tactics and formation, in the eyes of several seasoned observers in the business.

The starting lineup was nominally a 4-3-3 formation led by Paris St-Germain striker Lindsey Horan – the relentless goalscorer who made history when she moved straight from her youth club, Colorado Rush, to the French professional scene in 2012 – who was flanked by the small but speedy Marylander Midge Purce and physical University of Florida striker Savannah Jordan.

+READ: U.S. U-20 Women on brink of elimination in critical match against Brazil

However, sources close to the team tell that French actually drew it up as a 4-2-4, squeezing 16-year-old phenom Mallory Pugh, one of the youngest players in this World Cup, into the attack – which gave Pugh’s irrepressible skills and energy a fully deserved platform, as she showed in some of her brighter moments.

With Purce’s speed out wide, Horan’s strength and movement and Pugh ghosting around the box, the U.S. seemed likely to break down their European rivals’ back line eventually, while set pieces, as is nearly always the case for American teams, remained a useful weapon, too.

But the top-heavy system also piled heaps of additional responsibility on the shoulders of midfielders Andi Sullivan, who’d been spending more time at left back than center mid during the team’s preparations for this event, and Rose Lavelle, a highly-respected two-way player who can both create and track back.

The team looked its best when Lavelle found space to get her head up and play probing passes for the attackers in front of her, while Sullivan covered ground and provided a willing outlet for her teammates, particularly as the outside backs ran forward to join the attack.

But when a few good early looks at goal went unfinished and the Germans began to haul themselves into the ascendancy, the rhythm and precision ebbed away from the Americans. Passes flew astray, first touches grew clunkier and legs grew weary and sluggish. Fitness and athleticism were not going to be enough this time.

Spaces opened up for Germany to counterattack, which they exploited with relish. Center back Cari Roccaro, goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland and the rest of the back line were badly exposed, and couldn’t handle the danger on their own. The Germans looked clean on the ball and clear in their mission, showing they were equally comfortable with building play out of the back or surging forward on the break.

+READ: U.S. U-20 WNT media guide for 2014 Women’s World Cup

And in the end the U.S. errors gave them the opportunities they needed to score twice and take early control of Group B, this U-20 World Cup’s toughest draw by a wide margin.

Is French giving her talented roster the tools to perform at or near its best? Are these players truly prepared to face and defeat the global rivals who have now nearly closed the gap on the long-dominant Americans?

The U.S. U-20s have been in this spot before; the 2012 version of this squad lost to Germany in the group stage but advanced nonetheless and eventually defeated them in the championship final. But there is no longer any room for error. Four points is the minimum requirement from their remaining Group B matches against Brazil (tonight, 10 p.m. ET, broadcast on ESPNU/WatchESPN) and China (Tuesday), and all six points could be needed.

Player development philosophies stressing technical virtuosity and tactical savvy should have been the strongest influence on these U-20s up to this point – but let’s be honest, they’re still the products of a complex youth system with questionable priorities. Now that they’re on a world stage where results really are vital, they’ve got to find a way to solve the problems in front of them, and fast.

Today’s U-20s are tomorrow’s senior national teamers. And failure in Canada would point to an unsettling future for U.S. Soccer and place atop the FIFA World Rankings.