LAKEWOOD RANCH, Fla. — Forty minutes into its third and final match at the Nike Friendlies, the U.S. U17 MNT found themselves in an unusual spot.
The score was tied 0-0 against Brazil.
Goals had been a staple of the first two matches, whether it was scoring or conceding them. The offensive expectations set in the previous two friendlies were out the window in a tightly contested finale
Eventually, the goals came: Ayo Akinola opened the scoring thanks to high pressure and hustle. Josh Sargent added a second, and Timothy Weah came off the bench to score, as the U17s defeated Brazil 3-0 to capture the Nike Friendlies title.
“I’m very proud of these guys, for them to come here and put three really good performances against some very good teams, especially this Brazilian team, which was a game for the championship, there was a lot on the line there,” head coach John Hackworth. “I don’t think we started our best but we really got into the game and improved as we went. We’ve done that all three games which is a testament to their character, and how they’re managing games. Really happy and proud of this group.”
Chances were scarce in the early minutes. Sargent had a breakaway opportunity in the 13th minute, but a heavy touch took the ball too close to the Brazilian ‘keeper Gabriel Brazao. Brazil’s athletic back line kept pace with Akinola and Andrew Carleton on the flanks, keeping them quiet during that stretch. Vinicius Jr. and Rodrigo Nestor fired shots that just missed the target for the Brazilians.
Akinola’s defensive effort turned into the game’s first goal. Brazil defender Matheus Stockl failed to control a rather innocuous long ball from midfielder Chris Durkin. Akinola, who was nipping at the heels of Stockl, stole the ball, and finished past Brazao.
Five minutes into the second half, the lead double. After a turnover, George Acosta quickly played a low ball into space for Sargent to run onto. The captain ran onto it, and finished far post after taking a touch off of goalkeeper Arthur Gazze.
Sargent’s fourth goal of the Friendlies capped off another impressive performance, as he led the both the attack and defense from the front.
“Josh initiates all of [our pressing], and he initiates it on what he’s reading, he’s making really good decisions and his teammates are tuned into what he’s doing, and therefore when we do that we’re a dangerous team,” Hackworth said.
With a two-goal margin and only needed a draw to capture the crown, the U.S. adopted a slightly more defensive posture. However, Justin Garces had little to do – making his most difficult save before the break. Most of Brazil’s second half chances came from shots from distance that missed the frame entirely.
After a number of substitutions on both sides, Timothy Weah rounded out the scoring. As Brazil pressed forward looking for a goal, fellow sub Brian Reynolds slipped Weah in, and the PSG youth forward slotted home the game’s third goal in stoppage time.
Celebration accompanied the final whistle, as this U17 group put the disappointing finish of 2015 behind them.
“This is a huge accomplishment,” Sargent said. “Last year obviously we didn’t do so well, and I thought we had to come out here and prove a point, and I think we did just that.”