USA: Yes we can
© Foto-net

Less than 24 hours after Barack Obama's election, it is already being said that, years from now, everyone will remember exactly where they were when they heard that he had become US President.

The American women's U-17 team will certainly have no problem in recalling. Kazbek Tambi's young team were, in fact, on the field in a make-or-break match against France when Obama crossed the finishing line, and only learned of this momentous milestone in their nation's history as they left Auckland's North Harbour stadium.

These aspiring footballers are, of course, too young to have voted, so they focused instead on carving out their own little slice of history by securing the result that took them through to the quarter-finals of this first-ever FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup. Yet in contrast to Obama's victory, which rarely looked in doubt as the day progressed, USA's youngsters endured more than a few nervy and uncertain moments en route to securing the 1-1 draw that took them through.

She's a tremendous athlete, very dedicated and technically more than proficient.
Kazbek Tambi praises goalkeeper Taylor Vancil.

Indeed, as their coach was quick to acknowledge, it took a solid and occasionally heroic performance from goalkeeper Taylor Vancil to keep Les Bleuettes at bay as they chased the goal that would have ended US dreams. "Taylor's an awesome keeper," enthused Tambi. "We have a lot of faith in her. I thought she had an extremely solid game for us."

Even more effusive in her praise of Vancil was the USA goalscorer, Vicki DiMartino, who confided in that she had become a little too caught up in applauding her colleagues' efforts. "Taylor made an absolutely fantastic save near the end to get us through," said the striker. "I got totally carried away, started yelling ‘Yay, Taylor!' and totally forgot about the game - until the coach started yelling at me to get myself in there to help defend!"

USA's triumph was far from a one-woman show, however, although DiMartino proved considerably more modest when conversation turned to her own notable contribution: a stunning right-foot strike already being tipped as a contender for goal of the tournament.

"I don't really remember the goals I've scored - but that was a good goal!" she said, laughing. "I looked up, saw the goalkeeper was out a bit, and because it was on my right foot, I just tried to kind of flop it over her. I was going for a chip because it's my weak foot, so I knew I wouldn't get the same kind of power I would have done with my left. In the end, I was just lucky I guess."

Qualifying from the group stage might have seen the US pass their first major test at New Zealand 2008, but Tambi and his players are making it crystal clear that they do not view the achievement as mission accomplished. Rather, they have vowed that the best has yet to come from a side that has thus far failed to live up to some lofty pre-tournament expectations.

In every game we've gotten better and I'm sure you'll see better from us again in our next game.
Taylor Vancil sees steady improvement.

"This was our best performance by far and we're hoping to keep improving game by game," said Vancil. "But there's a lot more to come from us. "

Key midfielder Kristie Mewis agreed that the US have flattered to deceive at times in New Zealand, identifying wastefulness in possession as their principal failing to date. She said: "We normally pass the ball a lot better and keep possession more, and so far we haven't managed to do that. The teams here are on a whole other level to the teams we've played before and it's good competition; a great learning experience. You always have to find that little, different way to score, that extra run - there's no easy way out in these games."

No doubting, then, that the USA players are their own harshest critics, nor that they appreciate considerable improvement is needed if they are to succeed against Korea Republic where they failed against Japan. Yet Tambi was keen to temper this critical self-analysis with a warm tribute to the resilience his team had shown in bouncing back from their opening-match defeat.

He said: "We have a great cast of characters in this team and they've come here with a real ambition to play some great soccer. The first game was a setback for us but we sat down and told the team that two good results would take us through. And the fact that they've done enough to pull it off is tremendous. For girls this young to have the composure, guts and character to stay together and not be rattled by a setback like that, I think it's fantastic."