BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, June 25, 2013
The United States U-20 national team faces a winner-take-all game against Ghana on Thursday at the World Cup and forward Jose Villarreal is confident in his team's ability to get the needed result.
After being drawn into the tournament's "Group of Death" with Spain, France, and Ghana, the U.S team finds itself in a position where a win over Ghana in the final group stage game will be enough to advance to the round of 16.
The U.S opened the tournament with a disappointing 4-1 loss to Spain in a game where the team pressed hard at a furious pace but was exposed in the backline. It created chances on the offensive end but an undermanned central defense proved to be the Achilles' heel.
On Monday, the U.S team fought hard to a 1-1 draw against a talented French team. In that game, France scored the first goal on in incorrect penalty call when replays showed Javan Torre's foul was outside the box. Soon after, Luis Gil failed to convert a penalty for the Americans but Daniel Cuevas gave the U.S an equalizer in the 85th when he pounced on a poor French clearance of a free kick.
Now, the U.S team will face a Ghana team that has lost its first two games but played very well at times in their 1-0 defeat against Spain on Monday. Villarreal realizes that the game against France wasn't the best performance by the U.S team but he is happy with the opportunity to have the chance to advance from the difficult group against Ghana.
"It wasn't a pleasant game to watch or be a part of," Villarreal told YA from Turkey. "We didn't play that well but we fought through it. We didn't get the result we wanted but we didn't get a bad result either. Everyone seems to be happy about going into the Ghana game knowing that we can win this game and advance too. We're just focusing on our soccer."
There have been a couple of different approaches the U.S team has taken in their opening games. The aggressive pace against Spain resulted in a lopsided loss but the U.S team played well at times and the approach may have worked with better play from the defense.
France brought one of the most athletic and physically dominant teams to the World Cup in Turkey and that led to a more moderate approach from U.S head coach Tab Ramos. With the U.S team needing a win, Villarreal believes his team will try to take the game to Ghana again.
"Due to the fact that France had so much height all around the field, it wouldn't be smart for us to get into a battle in the air," Villarreal explained. "I think that's what we did against Spain. Ghana isn't as tall as France but we're looking to get the win. So if that means pressing the whole game high, then that's what we're going to do. I think that will work against Ghana."
"We watched a couple of clips of Ghana and we'll probably watch a lot more," he added. "I think the most important things for this game is to focus on ourselves and try to make ourselves better. I think if we come out sharper on the tactical side we can definitely win this game."
One thing that bodes well for the U.S team against Ghana is that it has a tendency to improve over the course of tournaments. This was most evident during World Cup qualifying in February when the U.S team struggled to defeat Haiti in the opener but grew stronger with each passing game.
Villarreal has been one of the best players for the U.S team this entire U-20 cycle and he scored three goals in four games during the qualifying tournament. As a player who knows the team very well, he is noticing the team gaining strength in this World Cup as it did during qualifying. He is adamant that the best is yet to come from both the team and him personally.
"I think for us it has been pretty consistent," Villarreal said. "We start off slow every tournament. It showed in the qualifiers. This is good for us. We didn't get the result against Spain but we're progressing and we're definitely getting better. I've been contributing a lot defensively to the team. Anything I can do for the team, I'm going to do. Once I get myself going, it will be a lot easier for everyone. I guess you can say there is a lot more from me to come."
Ghana will indeed be a tough game for the U.S team. One of the big storylines that is dominating the American press is that Ghana has been a nemesis for U.S teams in World Cups. In 2006, the US national team was eliminated when it lost a decisive group stage game. Four years later at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the Americans were sent home again by Ghana, this time with an extratime loss in the round of 16.
Villarreal acknowledges that his team is not caught up in the rivalry with the African powerhouse but admits that it would be nice to give the Americans a needed track record of success against the Black Stars. Either way, he insists that this U.S has showed heart in this tournament and that will give the team and edge on Thursday.
"It shows even from the Spain game," Villarreal concluded. "I don't know if it's only me but everyone else saw that we pressed them a lot and it was tough for them to play how they usually play. We fought them the entire game and to come through to do that two days later against France, it shows we have a lot of heart on this team. I'm happy to be part of it."