BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Last week saw USA Under-17 coach Wilmer Cabrera release his final roster for the 2009 Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria and while it was arguably one of the strongest youth rosters ever assembled by the USA for a major competition, many USA fans have seen their excitement tempered by a few players that did not make the team.
It was announced by Cabrera ahead of the tournament that Charles Renken, Joseph Gyau, and Sebastian Lletget were not going to be on the roster for various reasons ranging from injury, declining an invitation, or simply not being good enough. The omission of Lletget is of the most curious because while he just joined the prestigious West Ham academy, club commitments are rarely a reason for not accepting an invitation to play in the U17 World Cup.
Normally, a few teenagers not making a youth team would not cause much concern because, after all, not all talented players can make a single team with only 21 available roster spots. This situation is different, however, because Renken, Gyau, and Lletget all have dual passports and could each still represent another country if they so wanted.
As everyone is well aware, this has become a very sensitive issue among USA fans because in the past few years the USA soccer program has seen two USA citizens achieve great success in top European leagues while choosing to internationally represent other countries.
First there was New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi, who was consistently adamant about representing Italy and not the USA. Then there was Neven Subotic, born in the former Yugoslavia, who represented the USA at the 2005 U-17 World Cup but filed his one-time switch to represent Serbia for the remainder of his career.
Subotic's decision to defect has been frequently debated and discussed. To just recap, it followed a fallout with USA U20 coach Thomas Rongen after Rongen made some public statements Subotic viewed as critical. Rongen would later offer Subotic a spot on the U20 team but Subotic declined (contrary to what many USA fans have come to believe, Subotic was not cut from this team).
Afterward, Subotic quickly rose to success in Germany. After holding out for many months, he officially chose to represent Serbia, possibly because Germany was no longer an option. While Subotic has said that the decision to leave the USA program was not based on Rongen's comments, it has not stopped USA fans from engaging in harsh criticisms over the entire youth system.
Since Subotic's defection, the fear of losing dual nationals has served as an unfortunate distraction to many USA fans when it comes to youth national teams. Since then, whenever a youth roster is announced by USSF, focus quickly shifts from excitement over the team to which dual nationals were left off the team.
For example, just this past year, Rongen's 2009 U20 roster selection was most criticized by fans for leaving off Vincenzo Bernardo, a largely unproven player who played only a handful of games all year in the Italian Primavera.
To make matters worse, there have been various statements by certain dual nationals that if they are cut from a specific USA team, they will entertain offers from other national team which they are qualified. These statements have only increased the panic of USA fans.
This type of reaction by USA fans is misguided. Youth national teams need to be about developing players and introducing them into the USSF system. It is not about appeasing dual nationals.
It's certainly understandable that fans do not want to lose more players to other national teams, but coaches cannot cater to the demands of teenagers. If that were to happen, the coach's ability to run the team would be greatly undermined by not being able to organize a team as he sees fit.
A lot of the criticism on how the USSF handles dual nationals is also unfounded. Aside from the Subotic situation, the USA has gained far more than it has lost when it comes to winning the allegiance of these players. A large portion of the USA senior national team has dual passports. There are recent converts such as Edgar Castillo and Jermaine Jones, and there are also players such as Oguchi Onyewu, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard, Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, and Maurice Edu who have shown allegiance to the Stars and Stripes since the beginning of their careers despite having other opportunities.
The reality is that with so many young players in the country having eligibility for multiple national teams, the USA will not be able to win the allegiance of all of them. The players that really do want to play for the USA team will not let the opinions of a single youth coach determine the future of their international careers.
The USSF needs to focus primarily on the players that are committed to the USA. That's certainly not to say that they should not make an effort persuade dual nationals to represent the USA. But the USSF needs to be hesitant in working with players that remain uncommitted to the USA's soccer program after they have begun participation in the program.
The USA simply should not be in the business of developing players for other national teams. If players like Gyau, Lletget, Bernardo, or Renken are unsure of which country they would like to represent, they should not be named to the roster.
The problems with having uncommitted kids on the roster are twofold. The first is that it takes away a roster spot from another player that really wants to play for the USA. Developing players takes time and money and the USSF needs to be certain that the money is not going to a player who will leave the program.
The second problem is that giving roster spots to players who may be willing to defect also provides those players with a higher platform to audition their talents in front of the other national teams for whom they are also eligible.
So now with the USA underway with their U17 World Cup campaign, the focus and excitement needs to surround the incredible talent that is on this team which has the ability to go very far in this tournament despite an opening 2-1 loss to a talented Spanish team. Players like Luis Gil, Jack McInerney, and Stefan Jerome have all shown enormous potential, and they are all excited to represent the USA. If a player like Sebastian Lletget wants to leave the program and represent Italy or Argentina, that is how it is going to be.
The bitterness over losing a player really shouldn't linger as long as it has with some USA fans over Rossi or Subotic. Neither player really wanted to represent the USA. What separates national team soccer from club soccer is that the players and fans are all bonded by a common nationality and an allegiance to the national team. If a particular player doesn't feel that allegiance, they really should have no part of that team.
The good news is that lots of players would love to play for the USA. The focus should be on these players and not those that remain undecided or have turned their back on the USA team altogether. It is, after all, more fun to win with players whose hearts and efforts are firmly behind their country's national team.