There were clearly some opening game jitters from Team USA, as the under 20 squad kicked off its 2017 World Junior Championships campaign against Latvia.
The early goings saw the Americans grab a 1-0 thanks to a lovely Patrick Harper wrist shot. But the squad gave one right back after an errant pass sailed out of the offensive zone and the Latvians picked it up off a line change and scored on a backhanded breakaway.
It was a costly mistake and one that almost happened more than once. The first two periods were rife with passing mistakes and saw Latvia get out on multiple odd-man rushes. Some of this has to do with how aggressively the USA defense plays in the offensive zone, but it’s all the more reason why the forwards need to pay closer attention to where their passes are being placed. A better team will kill the Americans on those odd-man rushes resulting from turnovers.
Penalties were another frustrating aspect of this opening game for Team USA. The second period should have opened with the US on a power play but a roughing call on Troy Terry as the buzzer sounded in the 1st led to a trip to the penalty box for him and a 4-on-4. Again, a mistake that could easily have been avoided and one that a better opponent would take advantage of.
The penalties kept coming for Team USA and, at one point, the Americans had three minor stick infractions in a row. Latvia had two different 5-on-3 opportunities. Thankfully, the active sticks of the United States’ penalty kill kept any damage from being done.
The third period showed us what Team USA can do when the squad is firing on all cylinders. The penalties went away, as did the passing mistakes and Latvian odd-man rushes. The U.S. played a complete period, capitalizing on scoring chances, leading to a three-goal third.
Clayton Keller was fantastic all evening. He picked up a great rebound goal late in the 2nd period, thanks to his superb presence in front of the net. He deftly spun away from a Latvian defender and found himself all alone in front of the goal as a shot went off the pad of goalie Mareks Mitens. Keller slotted it in off the rebound. He showed what an undersized guy can and has to do in front of the goal.
Jordan Greenway was a force in front of goal as well. His big body and physical play were evident all night and it all culminated in a nice rebound goal with just 40 seconds left in the game. He ended up with the player of the game honors for Team USA as a result.
Goalie Tyler Parsons only faced 12 shots but he made a couple of superb saves in the 3rd period. He likely won’t face that few opportunities in the games to come but it was great to see him alert and never resting on his laurels despite a lack of activity for much of the game.
Overall, this ended up being a solid effort by Team USA. It was good to shake off the jitters and figure out how to play as a team while still getting a win to open the tournament. Wednesday’s game against Slovakia likely won’t be as one-sided on the score sheet, so the Americans will need to play a complete game the way they played the third period against Latvia.
Football is the most dangerous major sport out there. It has the shortest average pro career length and has resulted in traumatic, lifelong injury and even death. It’s a scary game, a beautiful game, and a fragile game.
Many who put on that helmet and take the field week in and week out are doing so, not just to give themselves a better life, but to give all of those close to them better lives. Many who risk life and limb daily do so because it’s the best chance they have of escaping dangerous situations. And most do it because they love the damn game and want to play it as long as possible.
It irks me to hear all the criticism that has befallen newly declared college stars who have decided to skip their final bowl games. Guys like Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette. There have been others but for the sake of this op ed, let’s just focus on these examples.
Christian McCaffrey has absolutely nothing left to prove in college, especially not in a pointless game like the Sun Bowl. His team struggled to put a consistent offense alongside him all year and he still did more than his fair share, to say the least. Three years, 3915 rushing yards on 631 carries, 1213 receiving yards on 100 catches, 31 total TDs. He’s made his case. One more non-Playoff bowl game is not going to change anything. His next test will be in February.
Leonard Fournette: three years, 3830 yards on 616 carries, 41 total TDs. And he only played half a season this year, so those numbers are even more impressive. We knew who Fournette was going to be by the end of last season. He’s got nothing left to prove on a college field. Not in a Citrus Bowl game. His next test will be in February.
So why are people so upset with these two? I get it. You want to watch the stars of college play one more game. But considering these two play the running back position, a position notorious for having short shelf lives, wouldn’t you rather ensure that they make it to the Combine in one piece?
I won’t argue with Stanford or LSU fans who are disappointed they won’t see their guys one more time. The people I can’t stand are the old, privileged coaches and analysts who are criticizing these kids. These guys, many way overpaid for cushy gigs that don’t involve putting themselves in harm’s way, are bashing these kids right now. Don’t tell these kids, not just Fournette and McCaffrey but all these kids, that they’re soft or wrong for worrying about injury before one of most important stages of their lives begin.
I’m sure I don’t need to remind you the contract differences between a 1st round NFL pick and a 3rd. A bad injury in a bowl game, one causing a player to miss the Combine, could have that kind of drastic drop in draft stock. Don’t be that guy sitting on your couch eating chips and drinking beer, criticizing these kids for skipping a pointless game to ensure safety so that they can get to the games that will pay them and help them take care of their families.
I respect these guys for making a very difficult decision, a mature decision, one that isn’t just for themselves but for their families as well. The overpaid analysts and multi-million dollar coaches need to get off their high horses.
Or the NCAA needs to pay these fucking players and then we’ll avoid this whole debate.