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.
Saturday October 31, 2009 6:57 pm
We should stop wasting time and money on Bradenton and get our players into professional academies around the world, even if we have to pay their way at first.
Thursday October 29, 2009 1:55 pm
Against players that are part of professional teams either playing for the 1st team or the reserves weekly, Bradeton cannot compete. We looked thoroughly out classed by Spain.
Monday October 26, 2009 4:16 pm
Nope, this will not be the year. They played a man up for 88 minutes (more or less, considering the 14 minutes of added time due to light outages), and lost the game 2-1 after being a man and a goal to the good. I had high hopes, they aren't ready for prime time. Oh, OK, they will probably get past Malawi, and maybe even UAE. If their first knock-out round opponent is weak, they might even win that one. But they can't beat a quality UEFA or CONMEBOL team when it matters. Not good enough. The US Development Academy is a good start, but we need to improve more. Less pay to play. Better coaching from the beginning. Cabrera just doesn't have the talent to compete yet. He spent a lot of money, time, and effort on this group. They have the best football education money can buy. They just don't have the talent.
Monday October 26, 2009 12:02 pm
Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves... this crop of players may do well or might be just average, we'll know very soon. But I must say that I'm rooting for Cabrera to do well because, let's face it, he is an experiment... bringing in someone from outside the "Old Boy's Club" that has been the USSF/US Soccer for so long now. Having watched Tommy Rongen's team and Bob Bradley's team play a long ball possession be damned style... it will be interesting to see if this group of players, playing for a Latino coach can play a more possession oriented style... I certainly hope so.

Since MLS has dropped it's reserve teams, most all of these players are either going to have to try to hook up with foreign teams or head off to play college ball... and sorry to say but even the best college teams barely prepare players for the professional level of play. So long as US Soccer has a vested interest in MLS, there will always be a defacto conflict of interest over just what happens with these players... I'm not sure what will change in the near term, but so long as the league controls just where a player can play and just how much he can expect to make... we will continue to lose many of our players and top prospects to the lower leagues of Europe... Denmark, Norway, Serbia etc.

I really hope Cabrera's team does well ... we need to start trying to play a smarter type of ball and this just might... I hope... goose us into doing something with our senior squad as well.
Sunday October 25, 2009 10:21 pm
Wins in SA will mean more for the US game than a crop of our youngsters heading to youth teams at the world's big clubs, although that would be a welcome and obvious benefit. And it will mean more than recognition for coming up with a good field product. It will mean validation for what many in the soccer community have been calling for: an attacking, creative style of ball that emphasizes the athleticism that American teams are known for but also bringing out a more South American notion of attacing play. If the Americans do go to the tourney and win (fourth place or better will do), look for two things to happen: Wilmer Cabrera to be snapped up by some other country's national team program as head coach, and a new focus on attacking play off personal brilliance on the field. Is US soccer ready for this? I think if anyone in US soccer is ready, it is this specific group of players. I guess we will find out in Nigeria.
Saturday October 24, 2009 12:47 pm
I think U-17 teams are lucky to have half their players make it as NT players. Not even brazil, italy, germany, etc. No one needs that either. Because the age range for a national team is essentially 20-32 you really need only about 4 or 5 players from every u-17 pool to be a top notch player.

But then you have players come out of nowhere, mex-americans popping up in Mexican league, college kids turn into pro stand outs.
Friday October 23, 2009 10:23 pm
I have no statistics to back it up, but looking at U-20 and U-23 teams of England past didn't guarantee success for a player, but some good ones come out of it, some fall through the cracks.

No what I would like to see with Bradenton, and I just thought of this, but they already have the academy set up, why not become an MLS team, with a good academy set up that feeds into the team. Barcelona has a much vaunted Academy, that has proven very successful as well as many other clubs in Europe.

This is where we need to head, stop relying on colleges to develop youth players, we need MLS to bring back the reserve league, and set up youth academies, otherwise we will always be behind the ball.
Friday October 23, 2009 8:09 am
Do the U17 teams of other countries produce many quality professionals?
I thought very few ever really make it. I'd be curious to know.

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