The journey has come to an end for the U.S. under-20 national team. We expected to stay in Holland a little longer, but that is not what happened, and we headed home after losing to Italy 3-1 in the round of 16 at the FIFA World Youth Championship. There is a tremendous empty feeling that everyone feels and as a coach it takes a while to get over.
The joys of winning are great and indescribable. Losses are painful and almost unbearable. When I was a player I was a difficult person to be around after a loss. Some players are still like that, but in general, players rebound quicker than coaches. Terry Donohue, the former UCLA football coach, told me that years ago.
I have gotten better at dealing with losses as a coach over the years. I tend to withdraw for a while and go off by myself and talk to close confidants. However, the process is all the same.
I always look at myself first. That is what I tell the players to do also. I ask myself could I have done anything different. Start a different lineup, use different subs, or play differently in regards to our tactics. I look at our preparation and ask whether there was too much or too little of something that we as a staff did. Hindsight is always better than foresight and as such you always need to come back to the circumstances that resulted in your initial decisions. I am going to let you into some of those thoughts.
No matter how much we told the team and showed them that Italy was good, subconsciously, they had determined they were a third-place team. As a result they did not initially accord them the same respect as Argentina in our first game. We should have been up 2-0 at halftime if Chad Barrett finished his chance off a Benny Feilhaber pass. That would have only filled the team with more confidence as they moved into the second half.
A deflected shot, a poor decision by Jonathan Spector, a bad play by Patrick Ianni and slow reactions on both those goals and the game was over. The Italian goalkeeper made some wonderful saves - on Eddie Gaven's shot, on Sammy Ochoa's shot and late on Barrett. But two own goals and an error did us in; if Barrett scores the second before halftime, everything is different.
Spector is our only defender who really organizes and talks in the back. Even our team doctor who has little soccer experience noticed that. I felt we needed that since Italy changed places a lot and we would require an organizing voice. Physically, he was 80-85 percent - we did a late fitness test and decided to start him.
My next decision was to go back to the same lineup in the back that started game one and had been successful. It was hard leaving Nathan Sturgis out of the lineup because he had played so well. If Spector had not gotten hurt we might have switched to 3-5-2 within the tournament due to the strong play of Sturgis, but we could never train on it.
Always there are little things as a fan you do not see from the outside. One of our players lost his soccer shoes while he was there, left them some place and could not remember where. He had to buy shoes before the game since he is not a Nike player and had to break these shoes in the night before the game. Then he tells me that those particular shoes cause him to bruise his foot and give him pain. Thanks for the info.
We had another player who came in at halftime feeling a reaction to allergies and starting to break out with red blotches and complaining about his focus. He got some water, the medical staff looked at him and said he should be OK. Halftime is more eventful than you think.
So Italy came out in the second half and pushed their number four higher up in midfield and we took a while to recognize that. We went down so I decided to bring on Sacha Kljestan in midfield because he is a better offensive player than Greg Dalby. Finally, we changed to a 3-5-2 and I replaced a defender, Hunter Freeman, with a forward, Jacob Peterson. Their goalkeeper made a couple more big saves and it was over.
In another week or so I will have an easier time looking back. This team accomplished a lot. Some players made names for themselves; Feilhaber, Marvell Wynne and Sturgis were excellent. Some were a little tired, such as Gaven, who always tries but was a little out of form because he carries such a large burden for the MetroStars at a young age. Injuries played a role in keeping Spector and Peterson from top form. Fitness hurt Ochoa since his team would not release him earlier. Some players had the "protected players blues." That is where they say "I am in the pros but I am not really playing ... but that is OK since I am still a young player." Those players still work, but lose what I call that 10 percent competitive edge that drives players to new heights.
A lot was expected from Freddy Adu. He is still very young and had flashes of brilliance. In our final game we missed him. Good players always find the ball somehow and some way. On this particular day that did not happen for him. He faces pressure every day from the media and the fans and holds up to it much better than most adults would. I wish I could take the expectations away and let him just play. He is still learning the responsibilities that go along with talent and I am talking about helping your team win. He is an offensive player who needs to impact the team at that end of the field.
In conclusion, I am very proud of this team. I felt we played very good soccer. We did not hide from anyone; we did not go into a shell and often carried the game. We created chances but our finishing was not what we needed. We often made goalkeepers look good because of our hesitation.
We were the first U.S. Under-20 team to qualify undefeated with nine points. We were the first to get seven points in group play in a Youth World Championship. We were the first to beat Argentina at a Youth World Championship. But, I hope you will remember us for our soccer, the way we played and how we competed with the best in the world on an even footing.
Sigi Schmid coached the U.S. U-20 national team in the World Youth Championship. He is one of the winningest coaches in MLS history, having led the Los Angeles Galaxy to four honors in his five-plus years at the helm, including the 2002 MLS Cup championship. Send comments to Sigi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.