BRENT LATHAM - Friday, October 9, 2009
If it has taken me some time to come up with some sort of reaction to the American disaster that was the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt, maybe it's because there were so many levels of failure to sort through in order to get to the crux of the issue.
In a tournament in which many top teams left their best players home, and FIFA ups the participation of underrepresented confederations, distorting the level of competition significantly, perhaps the most telling measure of the difficulty of getting to second round was that the Americans in the end were just one goal away from seizing the last spot, despite their poor showing.
That is, it's not hard to advance at the U-20 World Cup. Despite all that, Thomas Rongen's side still managed to crash out in the first round, along with the likes of Uzbekistan and Tahiti. There are some sound excuses that begin to explain the failure - Rongen repeatedly mentioned the paucity of opportunity and playing time for the best Americans at this level – and those problems need to be evaluated in depth.
But, truth be told, there's no reason a team of Americans playing at any level should not be able to do much, much better in this tournament. Just look at the teams still playing as the tournament enters the quarterfinals. Do South Korea, Hungary, or the United Arab Emirates really have so much more youth talent than the US?
The short answer is no, they don't. Despite the ease and ferocity with which this group of American Under-20 players was torn apart, both on the field and in the media, the fact remains that this team was pretty decent in terms of talent and ability. Brek Shea, Dilly Duka, Ike Opara, and company, might not be at the top of the future Premier League stars list, but this was group that had as much potential as previous US teams, and their opponents, and still managed to dreadfully underperform.
So despite the cries to the contrary by the sky-is-falling crew that appears every time something goes wrong with US Soccer, this performance really has little bearing on its future.
This team, like any youth squad, comes from a very small sample of the US player pool, and these 21 players will never be called on as anything to close to a group again. This cycle has also already produced two pretty good players in Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore, pretty much accounting for enough talent from a two-year period for the time being.
Furthermore, the results of Under-20 teams at youth World Cups have seldom been an arbiter of future performance on the full national team level, and if history is a guide, which it is, only a few of those on this year's team will ever see the field for the full grown national team.
But those are also good reasons for the US to do well, instead of poorly. And this team, like many before it, flunked when it could have outperformed.
But if the Americans didn't lack talent vis a vis the field, where did they come up short?
Part of the problem was attitude. Unfortunately this is not the first time we've seen a disorganized and clueless American team take the field when it needs to, and should, play better. Despite everything, a scoreless second half against Korea would have resulted in qualification. Coach Rongen should have had a good sense of what his team needed to get through, but instead he opted for a disgustingly pessimistic and ineffective long ball strategy that played further into the Koreans' hands for 45 anger-inducing minutes.
No surprise there, though. We've seen it all before. These sorts of performances are becoming common throughout the American program.
And that comes down to leadership. The Germans and Koreans had it, and the Americans did not. The US continues to produce talent, but putting all the pieces on the field in the proper order, and getting those players to implement a coherent and effective strategy, and believe they can win consistently at a high level, still seems an impossible task in US Soccer.
That process starts and ends with the coach. Who was that South Korean coach? None other than Myung Bo Hong, a defender who led Korea in three World Cups, including their semi-final run in 2002. The guy knows something about winning that Rongen seems not to. Which makes me think an ex-player like Alexi Lalas or Marcelo Balboa, or even future retirees like Brian MicBride or Frankie Hejduk would be great for the youth program.
These young guys need a positive winner as a role model. In pre-tournament interviews, the players told me time and time again that they believed, despite the general perception that the team was outmanned, that they could go far in Egypt and maybe even win it all.
That's what you want a team to believe. And based on the other teams I saw play in Egypt, few of which looked too impressive, I think those players were right to be confident.
The coach, on the other hand, was one of the team's biggest detractors. Rongen began with the excuses before the tournament even began, and actually said in a press conference after the resounding 4-1 over Cameroon that his team wasn't good enough to win the tournament, and just making the next round was his goal.
Clearly that negativity spilled over into the team, which should have played with confidence against South Korea, but did no such thing. In fact, in what seemed a concerted effort to undermine the team's confidence from the beginning, Rongen sent out a decidedly unprepared lineup and under-experienced lineup to face Germany, and they were run off the field. When he chose what seemed more like a first choice lineup against Cameroon, things worked better.
But with the Americans needing a simple result in the matchup against South Korea, one that should have been pretty even, Rongen and his team were embarrassed again from the opening whistle by a more focused, determined, and organized opponent.
South Korea was everything the Americans weren't. The Asian coach, when asked about the victory, didn't speak about talent, or skill, but rather his squad's superior determination and will power. Those are things Americans used to have in spades, but seem to have lost under the current leadership.
Maybe Rongen was just being an honest Dutchman as he explained repeatedly before, during, and after the tournament why his team would be, was, and had been no good. But judging on the soccer still being played here in Egypt as the semifinals approach, there's no reason to think this group of Americans, with a little more organization and preparation, couldn't have been involved deep into the tournament.
Since Rongen is a perfect example of why it is a fruitless debate, I'm not going to get involved in the foreign coach versus American coach argument.
What US Soccer needs on the sidelines are winners, no matter where they come from - leaders that understand and can break down the individual battles that take place in the tournaments that mean most, and can put the best team on the field in each match to assure that most of those battles are won, and at the end of the day, the resources available are fully utilized.
It's not a matter of American versus foreigner. Bruce Arena was the best we've ever had at the matchup game. Still it must be conceded that, in soccer, there are more European and South American winners than there are American.
Cycles differ, but the US has the talent at every age level to compete much more than the team did here in Egypt. As a soccer nation, we need to improve our showings, and win, sooner rather than later, some of these tournaments. Until we do, these underperformances will keep filtering up to the full national team, leaving a trail of failure in their wake.
Perhaps the talented U-17 group about to take the field in Nigeria will take the first step. Wilmer Cabrera is an untested coach who is something of an experiment in US Soccer in that he comes from outside the normal power structure. Maybe the Colombian can provide a model for success in the wake of this U-20 debacle.
He certainly won't have to do too much to top the Americans' performance here in Egypt.