CARSON, Calif. – The U.S. U17 Women’s National Team exited as champions. Just not the champions they had originally envisioned.
The U17s defeated Japan 2-1 on Sunday in the final match of the U17 Women’s NTC Invitational at the Stubhub Center in front of a robust crowd of partisan fans. The victory gave the U.S. the title at the tournament in their last game under the moniker U17 for the players born in 1997 and 1998.
Mallory Pugh and Taylor Racioppi were the heroes on the day with the duo finding the back of the net to lead the home side to victory, but it was a cumulative effort that allowed the U.S. to leave as champions.
Japan opened the scoring in the fourth minute when Sugita Hina sliced through the U.S. defense and slotted home a goal. Japan broke down the U.S. defense with crisp passing and some sublime off-the-ball movement. Hina was a handful all day and the best player on the field.
The goal put Japan in the driver’s seat to the title at the four-nation international event, as the Asian country needed to defeat the U.S. to lift the crown at the end of the day.
With early jitters starting to disappear, the U.S. responded with some decisive play and tried to take advantage of its superior speed on the wings. Madison Haley had the first chance of the game for the home side when she controlled a ball in the 18-yard box with her back to the goal, but the target forward was brought down with no foul called.
Pugh nearly found the equalizer when she broke free down the right side and blasted a shot to the far post but her effort missed the target. It was Pugh again in the 24th minute with the opportunity to regain control of the game at her feet. The Real Colorado star played a through ball to Haley, but her shot was swallowed up.
Five minutes later, the U.S. was back on level footing. Racioppi gained control of the ball in the 18-yard box and was hacked down from the side. This time, the referee pointed to the spot. Racioppi stepped up and buried the penalty kick to the lower right corner for the game-tying goal.
While the U.S. had the cleaner opportunities in the opening half, Japan dictated the play. Thanks to Hina and fellow midfielder Hasegawa Yiu, Japan’s midfield was a persistent threat to slice apart the U.S. defense and capitalize on any negligent passing.
In the second half, the U.S. tightened up the passing and broke the pressure of Japan with a more direct outlet to Haley as the striker. The talent from Texas started to run out of gas midway through the second half after working hard to keep hold of possession for the U.S.
Head coach B.J. Snow replaced Haley with Dorian Bailey, which would be the difference in the game. Bailey’s introduction pushed Pugh into the striker role where she made herself an invaluable part of the formation for the victors.
Pugh’s speed troubled the two center backs from Japan and gave the U.S. a perfect weapon to break the pressure that the visitors had relied on the whole game. Pugh was rewarded for her effort with 10 minutes left on the game when Racioppi spotted her run and played in a perfect through ball. Pugh took a touch and fired it to the far past. The goalkeeper from Japan put her fingertips on it, but it was not enough to keep the ball out of the net.
Prior to the goal and Snow’s choice to replace Haley, Japan had its best chance of the second half when Miyagawa Asato eluded the U.S. defense and hit a shot from 12 yards out. Asato’s shot hit off the inside of the post and, fortuitously, rebounded into Katherine Hess’ arms.
The visitors tried to heap on the pressure for the final ten minutes as Japan needed two goals to capture the trophy, but the chances in front of the net went missing and the U.S. gleefully celebrated the referee’s whistle after 90+ minutes.
Japan begins its quest for its first U17 World Cup Championship on March 16 against Spain. The AFC Champions are one of the favorites at the event in Costa Rica next month.
The U.S., which heartbreaking missed out on the World Cup after losing to Mexico in penalty kicks during the qualifying stage, matriculates into new age groups in the coming months.
U.S. U17 Women’s National Team Starting XI (4-3-3 right to left): Katherine Hess; Ellie Jean, Zoe Morse, Natalie Jacobs, Tegan McGrady; Marley Canales, Taylor Racioppi, Mallory Pugh; Kelcie Hedge, Madison Haley, Michelle Xiao