The statistics are still highly impressive: just two defeats in 28 matches at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup not including penalty shoot-out losses. But there was shock and profound disappointment in the USA camp after they were knocked out of Germany 2010 by Nigeria in Sunday's quarter-final.
The ultimate manner of the defeat was surprising with two of their most reliable performers, sharpshooter Sydney Leroux and captain Christine Nairn missing with their attempts from 12 yards and consigning the US to a 4-2 defeat with Nigeria successful with all their four efforts.
But there was another dimension to the setback that was hard to take. The north American side were so superior in the first half of the Augsburg fixture it was almost inconceivable to think they could find a way to lose the game and demolish their dream of advancing to Sunday’s final and the anticipated showdown with Germany.
After Amber Brooks had steered them ahead in the ninth minute, USA continued to dominate and create openings which they failed to capitalise upon, foiled by a mixture of haphazard defending and solid goalkeeping from Alaba Jonathan. It didn’t look to be too crucial; so poor had the Falconets been in a first half in which they struggled to get out of their own half.
The second period produced a different story altogether as the US ran out of steam. Nigeria grew in confidence and began softening up goalkeeper Bianca Henninger for the howitzer from Helen Ukaonu that would ultimately beat her with 11 minutes remaining of normal time. It was some strike.
USA coach Jill Ellis tried to explain the turnaround by saying: “A lot of it is attributable to fatigue and that’s why we used all three substitutes. It was tough to get the ball back from Nigeria. We should have put our other opportunities away but unfortunately things did not fall for us.”
The fatigue issue might be explained by the fact that because of the 1-1 draw with Ghana in the opening game, the US had to win their final group fixture against Korea Republic to guarantee qualification to the next round. They were therefore unable to give their key players a rest in the way that Korea Republic did in that Bielefeld fixture.
The defending champions were slow out of the blocks and were almost undone by Ghana. It proved a wake-up call and they showed more of their renowned style in the 5-0 defeat of Switzerland and then the 1-0 win against Korea Republic, so maintaining their record of winning their group in all five editions.
Germany 2010 was the first time USA had not made it to the semi-finals at least but Ellis believes her players can return home with pride. “I told them in the dressing-room that this is not the end position – there’ll be other games for them,” she added. “My heart goes out to them. They worked hard for this and they have grown as players.”