Seven minutes into the USA's first game of the 2017 U-20 World Cup, it seemed the young Americans were in for a long evening: Ecuador had twice cut open the back line and scored.
The USA seemed undone mostly by its own misfortune with injuries - Tottenham Hotspur prospect Cameron Carter-Vickers on the bench instead of in the lineup was not the best news for the American defense - and head coach Tab Ramos' fanciful tactical musings. Ramos opted for an unorthodox plan, setting play-maker Gedion Zelalem deep in the midfield and selecting U-17 captain Josh Sargent up front ahead of more experienced options.
Rise and shine! One hour til kickoff at the #U20WC in Incheon! Meet the U-20 #USMNT Starting XI.— U.S. Soccer YNT (@ussoccer_ynt) May 22, 2017
vs. preview: https://t.co/UAIJaQAU2R pic.twitter.com/MfX3P82Ux9
Unorthodox had collapsed into incoherent by the seventh minute, but the USA recovered its composure and started to play to the strengths of its game-plan rather than be dragged down by its weaknesses. Zelalem's exit due to injury in the 32nd minute might be a significant loss to the USA's hopes in this tournament, not least because the squad is already a little depleted. But in the context of this game, the arrival of Derrick Jones in place of Zelalem - possessed of a more conventional skill-set for the task of shielding and supporting the back line - helped the team.
And the selection of Sargent proved a master-stroke. The 17-year-old is not unknown on the international youth team soccer circuit - he is the captain of the USA's well-regarded Men's U-17 team - but this was his first game for the U-20s and Ramos seemed to be showing remarkable confidence in a very young player (he only turned 17 in February) to thrive on the biggest youth-team stage in global soccer. Ramos was vindicated: Sargent scored either side of half-time to square the match for the USA.
A step up in class hasn't slowed @_joshsargent_ down. He's now the youngest to ever score at the #U20WC.— U.S. Soccer YNT (@ussoccer_ynt) May 22, 2017
Deets: https://t.co/hwnQBN1z7T pic.twitter.com/lmGPHZhs44
'Keeper Jonathan Klinsmann did not have a great day. He made some good stops, but also made a risky challenge rendered moot by the fact Ecuador scored its first goal after he had toppled Washington Corozo. And he was entirely at fault for the third goal the USA conceded. An attempt to dribble out of pressure went all wrong; Bryan Cabezas scored his second and Ecuador's third in the 64th minute.
The mistake seemed destined to cost the Americans the game, but this U-20 side is nothing if not resilient. The team's late surge for an equalizer was rewarded in the fourth minute of stoppage time, when Luca de la Torre pounced on a weak clearance to snatch a point for the USA.
New York Red Bulls Homegrown player Tyler Adams started the match and played 85 minutes before giving way to Sebastian Saucedo as Ramos made his final substitution in search of a tying goal.
The 3-3 tie was perhaps fortunate: Ecuador will not expect to cough up many two-goal leads, nor to concede last-minute goals on the regular. But the USA made its own luck.
The flaws exploited by Ecuador are troubling for the hope the young Americans can succeed in this tournament, but those who followed this team's progress in the CONCACAF U-20 Championship will recall it started that competition slowly. The USA lost its opening group stage game to Panama, 1-0, and was a goal down to Haiti after 15 minutes of its second. But it beat Haiti 4-1 and went on to win the CONCACAF U-20 title.
The World Cup roster is a little different from the one that played in Costa Rica for the regional Championship, and the quality of opponent in Korea will be higher and more consistent. But perhaps the core personality of the team is the same: it needs a little time to warm up.
The Americans will have to hope three days is sufficient time to regroup and find better form: next up is a buoyant Senegal on May 25.