The US Under-17 national team’s time at the Aegean Cup couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.
Behind the stellar play of LA Galaxy Academy forward Haji Wright (above), the Yanks defeated five-time defending champion France 2-1 on a dramatic last-minute penalty kick goal by Christian Pulisic on Monday in Manisa, Turkey. The US then cruised to a 5-2 victory on Tuesday over Norway to secure a place in the tournament’s championship game this weekend.
In a tournament that gives the US a chance to measure itself in international competition, it’s so far so good for head coach Richie Williams, the former MLS player who also led the U-17s to the 2013 Nike International Friendlies tournament title in December.
“First off the ability to get three international games is great for our group, for our team just to get experience,” Williams said in a Q&A on U.S. Soccer's official website. “International experience against good teams is the number one reason why we travel to these tournaments. Secondly, being in this tournament, we want to go and play well.”
Against France, Wright set up the US’ game-winning goal when he made a run down the left flank and drew a foul when he was dropped by France defender Maxime Bernauer after cutting toward the goal. Pulisic’s side-footed shot to the lower-right corner fooled goalkeeper Anthony Maisonnial and gave the US the victory.
Wright set up the Yanks' first goal when he blocked an attempted France clearance, collected the loose ball, made a run to the end line and sent in a cross to strike partner Joe Gallardo, who tapped in for the easy goal in the 31st minute.
France got the equalizer from Arnaud Nordin in the 69th minute.
Williams called games against premier teams like France important in preparing for the 2015 U-17 World Cup in Chile.
“We get to see their style of play, how their teams implement their style and again, just the experience in terms of playing these teams, which will help our guys develop and help our team develop,” he said. “… We wouldn’t see these European teams in qualifying, but hopefully we qualify for the World Cup and there’s a chance we see these teams again.”
In Tuesday’s victory, five different players, including Pulisic, scored for the US as they punched their ticket to the championship game with one pool-play game to spare.
Elijian Rice started the scoring in the 21st minute, before Norway took a 2-1 lead on goals from John Hou Saeter in the 27th minute and Sander Berge in the 35th minute.
The US then pulled away.
Orrin McKinze Gaines equalized in the 40th minute, before Alexis Velela scored the game winner in the 47th minute, Pulisic added on in the 50th and Nicholas Taitague rounded out the scoring in the 58th minute.
The US (2-0-0; 6 pts.) now sit atop Group B and will play Scotland on Thursday before advancing to the tournament championship on Saturday. With France and Scotland drawing 1-1 on Tuesday, neither team can catch the US on points.