BRENT LATHAM - Thursday, October 22, 2009
Remember back to 2005, when David Arvizu was hailed as the next great American forward prospect? To say things haven't worked out as planned is an understatement. After a pretty forgettable performance in Peru at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, he's pretty much disappeared from the American soccer scene after some listless seasons in MLS.
But Arvizu is not alone. The panorama of past American U-17 teams is littered with can't miss prospects that have undoubtedly fallen short of the hype that proceeded them when they made their way to recent U-17 World Cups.
This American U-17 team is so full of stars that there simply wasn't room on the roster for all of them, so could this time be different? It's possible 2009 could be the year that the US breaks through, improving on the fourth place finish that Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley achieved way back in 1999.
Who would have thought ten years ago that no US men's national team since – there have been thirteen full international final tournaments including U-17s, U20s, Olympic Games, and World Cups – would have done better than fourth? (The 2000 Olympic team made the semi-finals and finished fourth.)
But this U-17 team, behind energetic coach Wilmer Cabrera, looks poised to do better, if the chips fall in the right places in Nigeria. Because there is so little room for pre-World Cup international comparison on this level, it's hard to tell, but this version of the U-17s has stacked up well in friendlies against some of the toughest opponents, and proved that it can play with anyone in the field.
"Soccer is a very mentally strong game," said the coach, "where you have to be tough mentally to try to impose on the field, so this is what we have been working with the players; they have to have that confidence and personality on the field."
No matter how far the U-17s go, one thing is for certain - they will play attractive soccer. Cabrera is intent on attacking, and his team will do so in Nigeria, come what may. Behind Jack McInerney, Stefan Jerome, and Luis Gil, they're likely to score their share of goals as well.
"It's a pretty fast paced style," said defender Perry Kitchen. "We just try get at teams and go high pressure. We're not afraid of anybody; we just go out and play."
The most glaring weakness, and one that could cost them in Nigeria, may be a lack of pace on the backline. Towering defenders Eriq Zavaleta and Justin Watts are strong in the air, but whether they can keep up against the fastest attackers, or versus a quick passing game that certain teams will bring in Nigeria, is yet to be seen.
The team has one distinct advantage in that it has been playing together for two years at Bradenton, though that same benefit stood for past editions of the American U-17s which have not fared so well. Nevertheless, this team has travelled the world together, playing friendlies on three continents, and has achieved some pretty good results along the way, standing up to Spain and Uruguay in close losses, and knocking off African champs Gambia and Chelsea's U-18 squad along the way.
"It's prepared us very well," Kitchen said. "Every place you go it's very different, each team has something different they bring to the table, so it's prepared us very well. We played teams from different places and the different styles have helped us overall."
The team even warmed up with a friendly against MLS team Kansas City Wizards, and though they fell, 3-0, they took a lot away from the experience.
"It was a tough game – they're professionals so we knew it was going to be tough," Kitchen said. "But I think we did well. The game was much faster than what we're used to."
All those experiences should have this US team ready to take on the world in Nigeria, and with a group that, besides Spain, includes lightweights Malawi and the United Arab Emirates, we should get to see more of this group than we did of the U-20s in Egypt.
That's a good thing, because even if most fans and parents are scared away by the security situation in Nigeria, scouts will make the trek to see tomorrow's future stars, and this team is full of them. For the first time in memory, it seems to be the goal of the majority of the team to turn pro after the tournament, rather than taking the traditional college route.
"Each guy is growing as a soccer player at different speeds," said Kitchen. "Some of the guys are gonna take the pro route, and some are gonna go the traditional American college soccer route. It just depends on the player – some guys are ready for that level and some guys aren't. They may get to that level."
Good performances on the synthetic turf fields of Africa will get this group a step closer to their dreams of becoming successful international soccer players, and bring the United States that much closer to becoming an international soccer power. That makes getting a slew of these players to Europe a goal, and measure of success, of this current cycle, perhaps just as important as success in the tournament in general.
But the exposure the players need to get seen by scouts will only come if the team can perform well in Nigeria. It did the American U-20 players little good professionally to struggle through the group stages in Egypt, and none of them have announced moves or even seem to have improved their current status much by flopping out after three games. That makes winning in Nigeria the top priority by default for Cabrera and his crew.
"For this tournament my first goal is the three games that we have in front of us," said Cabrera. "We cannot go forward because we don't know anything, so you cannot speculate."
A second use of the tournament will be to judge progress at the USSF's Bradenton academy. The unique program has gotten to the point where it may no longer be needed, with a wider range of youth teams playing at a more competitive level, and foreign teams beginning to come calling for some of America's young stars – casting a wrench into the works of this edition of the team and leading at least in part to the exclusions of Joseph Gyau and Sebastian Lletget.
"It's really important to expose the residency program that we took over two years ago, to see how we compare with the rest of the world," said Cabrera. "So we're going to know what is our level, what are our possibilities and where we need to improve and what we're doing correctly. So what we're doing correctly we need to emphasize, and what we're not doing well we have to work on that a little bit more. The only way to do that is to go to the World Cup and face the teams we need to face."
With so many unknowns, the only thing to do now is to let the ball roll in Nigeria, and hope that at the end of these three weeks, we're discussing a golden generation of American soccer players, rather than another over-hyped bunch of young guys headed to the obscurity of college.