BRENT LATHAM - Thursday, September 17, 2009
Who's the future this time?
Thomas Rongen has a tough job. The long time coach and scout has been the subject of intense criticism from US fans in the past over his choices for the U-20 national team.
But no one has a better perspective on the talents and potential of America's future stars than the man who sees the entire group - widespread and diverse as it is - on a regular basis.
This time around, Rongen says choosing the final 21-man squad for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt was not easy, and came down to experience and playing time. The coach and his staff have put in a good deal of work this cycle, having traveled the world with the team, playing games on five continents in preparation for the Youth World Cup, which begins for the Americans on September 26th against Germany in Suez.
"You look at the college game, the college game still is what it is, and we have limited players in Europe this cycle," Rongen said of his search to fill his 21 spots for Egypt. "So what it became was a search mission to see if we had more players out there."
The staff tried out a record number of players – over 100 from professional teams in Europe, the United States, and colleges and even high schools stateside – before settling on the final group that will represent the US in the Middle East.
"We looked at about 110 players, and exhausted all the pipelines we had domestically and internationally to look at players, and we reached a conclusion that these are the best 21 players," the coach said of the squad he will take to Egypt. "We needed to expand our search to make sure that we weren't missing anybody. You want to give every player you look at his due. "
Rongen says he has been a bit disappointed that this cycle is yet to produce a larger number of professionals playing regularly at their clubs. The previous edition of the team, which made the quarterfinals in Canada before crashing out disappointingly to Austria, featured a number of pros seeing regular time in MLS and abroad.
"This cycle has no outstanding players - if you exclude Freddy and Jozy," Rongen said, noting that Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu are still age eligible for the U-20s. "It's become a different group. There's a reason we went from more pros to more college guys. Last cycle we had about fifty percent, and I thought that this cycle we would now have all pros, that the process would just continue on, but unfortunately we now have more of a 50-50 mix."
The coach put the ball squarely in the court of America's professional league when explaining the paucity of pros in the American U-20 ranks.
"The bigger picture to me right now is the lack of an MLS reserve system," the experienced scout and coach said. "The college game is what it is, they're not playing year round ball there. There's some concerns right now in this particular age group since they're not together all the time. You rely on their development with their respective clubs and situations and not too many of them are getting first team playing time, and since there's no reserve league some guys aren't getting enough games, or games at all, and that concerns me."
The coach's final choices for this year's squad have generated some concern themselves - among segments of the American fan base. The exclusion of a number of young but inexperienced Europe- based players, notably Italian-American duo Vincenzo Bernardo and Giuseppe Nazzini, worries some, especially with lingering fears that another Neven Subotic or Giuseppe Rossi may be developing outside the American program. But Rongen assures the staff has thoroughly evaluated the talent pool.
"We look at performances mostly when the players are with us, then we continue to monitor their performances abroad," the coach explained. "In most cases, it's not always greener on the other side. Just because those guys are in Europe doesn't mean those guys are getting meaningful minutes with their respective teams on whatever level. And it shows when they come in."
Rongen also originally left out Hertha Berlin playmaker Bryan Arguez, and Chivas USA winger Gerson Mayen, before adding the pair to the squad after injuries to Sam Garza and Anthony Wallace.
"I felt that there were some college players out there that were quite frankly better, in the end then some of those guys that were playing in foreign clubs -the guys that get lost in the shuffle a little bit," Rongen said.
Rongen has adopted a philosophy similar to that of US full national team coach Bob Bradley, rewarding playing time and shying away from players not performing at some level. Rongen framed the inclusion of Mikkel Diskerud of Stabaek in Norway, and Jarred Jeffrey of Belgium's Club Brugge, in those terms.
"If you can play 90 minutes in UEFA cup against Valencia then you say those are legitimate minutes," the coach said of Diskerud, who, because of club commitments, has played only one match with the U-20 team in the last year. "Jared Jeffrey gets good minutes with his reserve team. But it's not always rosier in Europe. Those are guys that we have to make a case by case evaluation of when they come in with our team how did they perform."
Rongen and the team are in Cyprus for a week long training camp during which they will take on Australia in a friendly match, before continuing on to Egypt next week. The team is matched with Germany, South Korea, and Cameroon in a tough Group C.
Advancing out of the group, and general success in Egypt, will depend on the precision of Rongen's choices.