Even though the Union's Mark McKenzie and Matthew Real didn't play much at the under-20 World Cup, the experiences they had there will live long in their memories.
That last result — a comeback from 2-1 down to win 3-2 — is one of the top results in the program’s history. It put the Americans in the quarterfinals for the third straight under-20 World Cup, and made them the only team to get that far in the last three tournaments.
"We're a team that a lot of people underestimate, but we have a lot of talent to prove to the world," Real said. "It just shows the fearlessness and the relentlessness that the group had to continue to fight and get the result against France."
Alas, the U.S. came up short of reaching the semifinals for the first time since 1989 with an agonizing 2-1 loss to Ecuador. No American men’s team at any age group, from youth to the senior level, has ever won two consecutive knockout games at a World Cup.
"It's unlucky and unfortunate for us to get knocked out in the quarters, but it's a learning experience," McKenzie said. "I'm proud of the group, what we did and the way we played. … It was rough [at the end] — I wish we could have come home with the trophy, but that's how the game goes."
Unfortunately, McKenzie's playing time was limited as he recovered from the appendicitis he came down with in late April. By the time he was at full health, Aboubacar Keita was well enough in McKenzie's place to earn the right to stay in the lineup.
McKenzie, who was named the U.S. team’s captain before the tournament, ended up playing just 120 minutes over three appearances. His only 90-minute outing came as a makeshift right back against Qatar.
But he didn’t complain about how things played out. In fact, he said, whether he’d go to the tournament at all was up in the air until the last minute.
"I was just trying to find my footing, and the guys were playing well — once you find a rhythm, sometimes it's tough to break in," he said. "I had to be a leader. They made me captain for a reason. It was important for me to be there for the guys through the ups and the downs of the tournament, to help shepherd everyone in the right direction."
Real made two appearances as a substiute, against Ukraine and Qatar, for a combined 21 minutes. Ukraine beat the U.S. in its first group stage game, and has gone on to reach Saturday’s final against South Korea (noon, Fox Sports 1 and Universo).
As so often happens at youth World Cups, players who weren’t widely known before got increased attention. Midfielders Alex Mendez, Ulyssez Llanez and Richie Ledezma, forward Sebastian Soto and defender Chris Richards are now on the radar of an American fan base that’s tired of the senior men’s team’s struggles.
“We had a lot of guys that proved themselves to the world, to teams that were watching,” said. “Now it’s just about carrying that out when they go back to their clubs — me as well. It’s an experience that I learned from. Obviously, I didn’t play too much, but when I got in, there were definitely a lot of things that I learned from the environment.”
McKenzie said coach Tab Ramos, who has led the U.S. through the last four under-20 World Cups, left his players with a strong message of encouragement.
“He reiterated that just because we made it to the U-20 World Cup doesn’t mean we’ve made it,” McKenzie said. “You made the tournament, but now it’s about not being complacent and constantly pushing yourself in whatever environment you’re in to be the best player you can be. Whether you’re fighting to get into the 18, whether you’re trying to fight for first team minutes, [or] playing second division ball, it doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, you have to put that pressure on yourself to push your limits and challenge yourself each day.”