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Resources Oct 20, 2015

Froh: U.S. U-17s still alive, but just barely after 2-2 World Cup draw with Croatia

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The day before the U.S. U-17 Men’s National Team kicked off the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile, U-17 head coach Richie Williams demurred when asked if his team’s performance in this tournament was a referendum on his time as coach.

“No,” Williams said flatly. “I mean, we qualified this time around.”

Qualification is one thing, but through their first two games in the tournament, the U.S. have struggled mightily against opponents Nigeria and Croatia.

+READ: U.S. U-17s: Hugo Perez, the 98-99 crop and a legacy on the line at U-17 World Cup in Chile

While a 2-2 draw against the latter on Tuesday may lift some spirits, it certainly came in one of the worst ways imaginable as the U-17s failed to hold on to a 2-0 lead going into halftime and nearly conceded the winner in the final seconds as Croatia twice hit the crossbar.

It was a roll of the dice from Williams, who finally started the two central midfielders who had been paired together for most of the summer, Christian Pulisic and Luca de la Torre. And for several minutes in the first half the pair worked together brilliantly.

Through the first 20 minutes of the match, de la Torre was brilliant, spraying brilliant passes across the attacking third and helping the U.S. get numbers forward in dangerous areas.

All of that brilliant work paid off in the 20th minute, when de la Torre persisted after a Croatian defender, who failed to clear de la Torre’s misplayed touch, and sent the ball right to the feet of Pulisic. Pulisic then calmly slid the ball past Croatian goalkeeper Adrian Šemper.

A 36th-minute miss by U.S. forward Brandon Vazquez after brilliant work from de la Torre and Pulisic to set it up called to mind two early misses against Nigeria. However, Vazquez made up for the error just four minutes later when he headed home a lovely right-sided cross from Pulisic, who for the first 45 minutes terrorized the Croatian defenders with his movement and passing.

The second half, however, proved another story entirely. From almost the opening whistle, the U.S. played on its back foot, defending deeper and deeper and inviting wave after wave of Croatian attacks.

Croatia’s constant pressure was rewarded in the 65th minute when a defensive break down and a missed clearance from Hugo Arellano resulted in an easy finish for Croatia’s Karlo Majić.

Before the match, Williams inserted nominal defensive midfielder Tyler Adams into the starting line-up as a right fullback. While Adams grew up playing as a defender, he’s spent the past several years – including the time he’s spent with New York Red Bulls II as a professional – as a defensive midfielder. That Williams threw Adams into the lineup as a right back came as a surprise.

+READ: Red Bulls Academy product Tyler Adams ready to lead U.S. U-17s on rugged World Cup mission

What was no surprise, however, was that Adams would struggle in the new role. Croatia persistently attacked his side of the field in the first half and did not let up in the second. Those efforts resulted in the defensive breakdown that led to Croatia’s game-tying goal in the 77th minute.

On that play, Croatia’s Josip Brekalo slipped right past two U.S. defenders, including Adams, and sent a low pass to his teammate Luka Ivanusec, who slipped right by two U.S. players and finished the pass by U.S. goalkeeper William Pulisic.

Croatia thoroughly outplayed the U.S. in every facet of the game in the second half, outshooting the Americans 18-1 (and outshooting the U.S. overall by an astounding 29-6, with six of those shots on target) and never once taking their foot off of the pedal.

The result should cause concern among Williams and the rest of his technical staff. His U-17 team had no answers for Croatia’s persistent attacks in the second-half and was unable to string together possession for any stretch of time in that period. Had it not been for the timely intervention of the crossbar, the U-17s would have lost the match.

Still, the draw does salvage some hope for the U-17s, who could book their ticket to the knockout round with a win over hosts Chile and a fortuitous result in the final group match between Nigeria and Croatia.

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