Jamaica refused to go down without a fight. Though the U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team fired off shot after shot and controlled the lion’s share possession in its second match at the 2018 CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship, the USA held only a tenuous 1-0 lead late into the game.
As the second half wore on, Jamaica’s counterattacking runs cut deeper and deeper, threatening closer and closer, buoyed by a clamorous crowd. For the first time of the night, the USA had to steel itself against a dogged effort. In the 88th minute, the Reggae Girlz finally broke through - drawing the game even on a set-piece score.
As the bench exploded, the fans erupted and the Reggae Girlz embraced, the U-20s took the ball out of the net with singular purpose.
“Once we grabbed the ball right out of the net, we knew that we could do it,” Howell said. “We know these qualifying tournaments are never going to be easy. It’s about believing in ourselves and believing in each other. It’s the U.S. mentality, the never-give-up mentality. No matter what, we know that we can come back and win games.”
The young Americans wasted no time advancing the ball up-field. That urgency saw the U-20s promptly penetrate into the opponents’ final third. Jamaica attempted to clear an initial foray, but Brianna Pinto kept the ball in play around the Jamaican box and dished it left to the outside for Sophia Smith, the team’s offensive sparkplug on the evening.
Smith traded passes with Viviana Villacorta took a dribble toward the end line and then sharply cut it back to Jaelin Howell in front of the net. She slid hard to knock home the game-winner for the USA.
“It was a great cross, Sophia placed it perfectly on my right foot,” Howell said. “I just tapped it in. It was crazy. I couldn’t believe it at first. We were not rushing but obviously aware of the time. I thought, ‘Why not just get in the box, it’s the last minute.’ It was a great team effort just to get the ball to the net, go forward and get that goal.”
Jamaica scored in the 88th minute. The reply came less than a full minute later.
“It was an amazing response from our side,” head coach Jitka Klimkova said. “After we conceded that goal, nothing better could happen - straight after the kickoff we scored. I am really proud of this team because we never, ever will give up. That’s exactly what happened. We didn’t give up and we believed in this win.
On a night when the USA had trouble converting chances – 27 shots produced only two scores -- Howell was clinical on the game-winner. She and her teammates had no doubt they could produce a goal when they picked up the ball from the back of the net just seconds earlier
“We all trust each other. I don’t think anyone on the team had any doubts,” Howell said. “I was just amazed that our team was that resilient and that calm under pressure. We were able to get the ball up the field fast. I’m really proud of us and how we were able to execute.”
The victory clinched a semifinal berth for the red, white and blue. A win there – against Canada or Haiti -- punches the Americans’ ticket to the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in France. Now, the USA hopes the thrilling result can spark the team forward.
“Our hard-fought, hard-working mentality that sets us apart,” Howell said. “We’re going to continue to keep working hard, play for each other and try to represent the U.S. as best we can.”