In their opening match at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006, USA had all manner of difficulty defeating DR Congo . Despite dominating for most of the game, they had to contend with a defiant African outfit that came mighty close to clinching a draw.
If Tim Schulz's charges are to go far in the tournament, the American coach will need to take urgent remedial action, while his opposite number Poly Bonganya can derive cause for optimism from this narrow defeat.
"I have to congratulate the Congolese, who played a really good match," Schulz said afterwards. "They were excellent in one-on-ones and very dangerous up front. For our part, I think we're going to have to learn to play a bit faster if we're not going to be frustrated by opponents like this."
Bonghanya, the Congolese coach, shed light on his pre-match plans and post-match thoughts: "My plan was to soak up the pressure and then hit them on the break. It only worked in part because they're a very cohesive unit and extremely well prepared. But I believe we'll be better in our second game. It's also a new experience for me and I'm learning a little bit more every day."
DR Congo's high pressing game was preventing the Americans from getting organised. Nevertheless, the US were still the first to carve out a clear-cut opening, Amy Rodriguez's turn and volley following a defensive mix-up flying just over. Little by little, Amanda Poach and Alexandra Long began to gain ascendance in the middle of the park.
Although under pressure, the Congolese were then a hair's breadth away from getting off the mark. Oliva Amani broke away down the right before cutting the ball back for Kuyangisa. From only six yards out, the FCF Milinga player somehow contrived to miss the target. Perhaps this was the turning point for the Congolese.
Stung into life, the CONCACAF representatives finally took the game by the scruff of the neck. Di Martino was running riot down the right, Heath fashioned a fine scoring opportunity for herself only to make a hash of her shot, and then Long sent two headers goalwards from successive corners which also failed to find the back of the net. However, the chink in the Africans' armour was about to be found. Long, a playmaker whose instinctive skills are a massive asset for the Americans, superbly picked out Kelley O'Hara at the heart of the African defence, and the Stanford University student dispatched an unstoppable shot. (0-1, 33')
"I thought that Alexandra (Long) was going to turn out wide but instead she played me in right at the heart of their defence. I turned quite fast, hit it hard, and bingo!", explained the striker succinctly after the encounter.
The Americans were keeping possession now and although the Africans reacted in just the right fashion, Schulz's girls now looked the less nervous of the two teams. In the dugout, Bonghanya was growing agitated, and his malaise almost deepened when Long again fed O'Hara in a dangerous position. This time, however, the American striker was off-target.
The second half was tricky for the Congolese, who were outfought physically by the Americans. Long spurned what seemed an unmissable chance, O'Hara struck the crossbar, and Rodriguez's half-volley flashed over. The Africans' defence was eventually breached again when, from a throw-in, they inexcusably left two opponents unmarked in their box. Di Martino shot, Mamie Buazo parried, and Long, who was involved in all the USA's best moves, pounced on the rebound. Bundled over, she was awarded a penalty, which Rodriguez duly converted. (0-2, 65')
Congo were reeling now and it was a minor miracle that they conceded no more in the five minutes of madness that followed. On the contrary, they managed to halve the deficit, when Tresorine Nzuzi broke away, tormenting the American defence before beating Joanna Haig with a fine shot. (1-2, 70')
Once again, the Americans threw themselves into attack, only to be let down by wayward finishing such as Casey Nogueira's shot against the bar on 73 minutes. Although exhausted, the Simbas sensed they could still get something from the game and committed more men forward. But the US held out until the end to record a painful but precious victory. "The Congolese played really well, and they're particularly strong in defence. But we're also here to improve and I'm sure we will in our next match," said the visibly tired Ohara after the game.
Player of the Match: KELLEY O'HARA (USA):
"The American forward was combative throughout and showed great flair. She's also got excellent ball control and showed her eye for an opening several times. Finally, she proved when she struck the woodwork that she possesses a very powerful shot," Connie Selby (USA), FIFA Technical Study Group .