2012 CONCACAF WU-20: USA-Mexico Semifinal Preview

This Friday, at 5:00 p.m. Eastern, the USA’s Under-20 Women’s National Team will take on Mexico’s U-20 WNT in the first semifinal match of the 2012 CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championship. At stake: A qualification spot for the 2012 Women’s Under-20 World Cup in Japan. However, this is not an all-or-nothing affair. The loser of the match will play the loser of the other semifinal, either Canada or Panama, in a repechage match on Sunday, with the winner of that game claiming the final ticket to Japan.

THE USA

How They Got Here: The USA finished first in Group B, thanks to three successive 6-nil victories over Guatemala, Cuba, and Panama. The USA’s group record is 3-0-0, with a +18 goal differential (18 goals scored, zero goals against).

The USA’s first two wins were rather non-stellar as the team seemed to lack a rhythm. For the opening match, first-match nerves was mentioned in post-game quotes as a reason for the USA’s muted performance. For the most part, off-the-ball movement was lacking in the first two matches. The third match, versus Panama, saw a marked improvement in team rhythm and player movement, although the finishing, especially in the first-half was definitely lacking. One reason for the better player movement versus Panama seems to be that Panama played more one-v-one defending rather than zonally, which forced the USA to be more creative.

Goal Scorers: Maya Hayes (4); Lindsey Horan (3), Katie Stengel (3); Vanessa DiBernardo (2), Julie Johnston (2); Micaela Capelle, Samantha Mewis, Cari Roccaro, Chioma Ubogagu.

Assists: Crystal Dunn (3); Maya Hayes (2); Morgan Brian, Micaela Capelle, Vanessa DiBernardo, Lindsey Horan, Samantha Mewis, Mollie Pathman, Chioma Ubogagu.

Key Players: Katie Stengel, Vanessa DiBernardo, the USA’s backline.

Stengel scored 3 goals over 2 matches and is a probable to start up front for the USA. Her physicality down the middle should benefit the USA through either direct goal-scoring or through earning dangerous free-kicks. On the other hand, Stengel has sky’ed a couple of shots.

Vanessa DiBernardo has been a spark off-the-bench and has scored two goals in two matches. Both goals were opportunistic, quick-thinking goals. DiBernardo has also been taking corner kicks when Stengel and Pathman have been off the pitch. She played the full ninety against Panama and may have earned a start against Mexico as well.

Crystal Dunn’s excellent flank deliveries into the box have earned her a team-leading 3 assists, so, offensively, she is a valuable player. But defensively, she and the other outside-back, captain Mollie Pathman, who both play as forwards for their collegiate teams (UNC and Duke, respectively) will need to be on their toes and ready to track back when Mexico quickly counters.

Kassey Kallman and Cari Roccaro, or perhaps Olivia Brannon, will likely be the center-backs for the USA against Mexico. They have only been tested slightly, and have performed adequately, but Mexico will probably be the first team to really test the pair’s partnership and mettle.

Brannon has played both center-back (versus Cuba) and right outside-back (versus Panama) in this tournament.

Questions:

  1. How will the USA’s backline respond to Mexico’s offensive attacks?
  2. Will the USA’s goalkeeper (probably Bryane Heaberlin, but possibly Abby Smith) be up to the task from the get-go? Neither has been seriously tested so far during the tournament.
  3. If Mexico does score first, how will this team respond?
  4. Who will start in the midfield? DiBernardo has been a spark. Mewis has gotten involved in the attack (with a goal and an assist), while Johnston has 2 goals in 2 starts. Where does that leave Morgan Brian?
  5. And, up top? Hayes has contributed the most offensively, at least on paper, with 4 goals and 2 assists. Horan had a hat trick versus Guatemala, but her finishing was lacking in the last two group matches. Kealia Ohai has had a rather quiet tournament, but her flank play has led to at least one goal (against Guatemala).

MEXICO

How They Got Here: Mexico finished second in Group A, by winning their first two matches against Jamaica (3-1) and Haiti (10-0). Mexico then lost to Canada, 1-0. Mexico’s group record is 2-1-0, with a +11 goal differential (13 goals scored, 2 goals against).

Against Jamaica, Mexico’s defense, through poor marking, let in an equalizer (Kimberly Spence, 15′), before Natalia Gomez-Junco got the game-winning goal by side-volleying a long midfield-pass past Jamaica’s ‘keeper right before half-time. Canada’s goalkeeper, Sabrina D’Angelo was the defensive difference in Mexico’s last group match (CanadaSoccer.com match report).

Goal Scorers: Natalia Gomez-Junco (4); Ariana Martinez (2), Tanya Samarzich (2), Daniela Solis (2); Yamile Franco, Olivia Jimenez, Chrystal Martinez.

Assists: Not ready available.

Key Players: Cecilia Santiago (GK), Nayeli Rangel (MF, captain), Natalia Gomez-Junco (FW), Tanya Samarzich (FW).

Santiago will likely need to play one of her matches ever, especially if the USA is able to exploit the weaknesses in Mexico’s backline.

Rangel is still recovering from a Summer 2011 knee injury and has played less than 60 minutes in each of the matches.

Gomez-Junco and Samarzich are explosive scoring threats who individually may be able to win the match for Mexico by exploiting a one-v-one situation against one of the USA’s non-natural defenders.

Questions:

  1. Will Mexico’s defense be ready for the USA’s offensive firepower?
  2. Will Mexico have a proper counter-attack strategy against the USA or rely more on individual athleticism?
  3. Will Nayeli Rangel play more than 60 minutes?

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Past Knock-Out Stage Encounters

At this level, the USA and Mexico have faced off twice in a semifinal: once in 2006 (U-20) and once in 2004 (U-19), with the USA defeating Mexico both times.

In 2004, the semifinal was an all-or-nothing affair, as CONCACAF only had two spots allocated for the 2004 U-19 WWC. That year, the tournament was hosted by Canada. The USA-Mexico semifinal quickly turned into a route, thanks to a first-half hat trick by Angie (Woznuk) Kerr, who opened the scoring in the 4th minute, and then scored the USA’s next two goals 20 minutes later, in quick succession: the first from a free kick that curled around Mexico’s wall (24′) and the second was assisted by Stephanie Logterman . Kerri Hanks would score the USA’s next two goals. Stephanie Kron also scored that day, directly off a free kick. (US Soccer match report)

Notable players on the field for the USA that match include future USWNT players Rachel Buehler, Stephanie (Lopez) Cox, Yael Averbuch, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Angie (Woznuk) Kerr.  In goal was Ashlyn Harris, who has been in senior USWNT camps, but has yet to be capped. Also, Megan Rapinoe was a substitute, but did not play in that match.

In 2006, Mexico hosted the Championship, which was now a U-20 event. This go-around, the USA and Mexico played scoreless until the 22nd minute, when Brittany Bock powered in a 22-yard free kick after Amy Rodriguez was fouled outside Mexico’s penalty box. The scoreline would remain 1-0 until Amy Rodriguez scored in the 59th minute off a threaded pass from Allie Long. Brittany Bock would add an insurance goal in the 71st minute by heading in a pass from Kasey Moore. (US Soccer match report)

Future USWNT players on the field in 2006 include Amy Rodriguez, Lauren Cheney, Kelley O’Hara, and Tina DiMartino.

The only other time the USA has faced Mexico in the knock-out stage of this Championship was in the 2010 final, where the USA defeated Mexico 1-0 thanks to a 87th minute goal by Sydney Leroux, who was assisted by recent USWNT camp attendee Kristie Mewis. (The USA and Mexico also faced each other in the last group match of the tournament: A 2-1 win for the USA, with Mexico’s goal only coming in the 90+ minute.)

For the USA, the only returnees from that match are Crystal Dunn, who played center-back for the full ninety; Samantha Mewis, who was an 83rd minute substitute; and Maya Hayes, who went unused as a substitute.

For Mexico, several veterans of that match are on their current U-20 roster: now senior WNT goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago, current U-20 captain Nayeli Rangel, plus fellow Auburn Tigers Bianca Sierra and Ashley Kotero, all started in that match, while Natalia Gomez-Junco (Memphis) and Olivia Jimenez were unused substitutes. Mexico’s coach, Roberto Medina is also back. (US Soccer match report)