BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, December 23, 2009
This past week it became news that US Soccer would retain Thomas Rongen as the head coach of the USA U20 national team for the 2011 World Cup cycle. It will be Rongen's third straight cycle as head coach of the U20 team and fourth overall.
Despite his weaknesses and the disappointing results of the 2009 U20 team at the World Cup this year, Rongen remains the right person for the job for this cycle. There are several reasons for this.
The first reason is that Rongen remains an offensive minded coach that has always attempted to build his midfield around creative players. More importantly, Rongen provides room in his system for these creative players to use their individual talents and skills to dictate the pace of the games.
In the 2003 cycle, Rongen built his team around the playmaking of Bobby Convey and Justin Mapp. The result was the best soccer the US has ever played at the U20 age group. The US posted convincing wins over Paraguay, the Ivory Coast and South Korea before falling 2-1 in extra time to Argentina in an end-to-end thriller.
In the 2007 cycle, the team's playmaking was even more explosive. The midfield was centered on Freddy Adu but he was aided by Robbie Rogers, Sal Zizzo, Michael Bradley and Danny Szetela, all of whom excelled in the system. The team managed wins over Poland, Brazil, and Uruguay before falling to Austria in extra-time.
While the 2009 cycle was disappointing for the US, the system was still built around attacking soccer. The best field players on the team were Dilly Duka, Bryan Arguez, and Jared Jeffery. Rongen's system did provide for a player like Duka to use his creativity to manufacture offense. Still, it remains a distinct possibility that this team's poor results may just have been a result of it being less talented than the three previous U20 classes.
Far too often, youth soccer coaches in the US are accused of playing a very robotic or rigid form of the game that stifles creativity and individual skill. Many American youth teams lack playmaking in favor of bunkering and long ball tactics. While this may be a fair generalization for most coaches in this country, Rongen does not fall into this harsh stereotype.
The backbone of Rongen's system is simply freedom on the field for talented playmaking midfielders. The success and failure of his teams will depend solely on a player's talent and vision. Rongen will allow his players, not his system, to determine how far the team goes.
At the youth level, this type of system is the right one. While results are important, an even bigger priority should be to allow the players to play in front of scouts and show off their talents. A less rigid system like the one Rongen uses will truly show where the American talent stands compared to the rest of the world at this particular age group.
While the 2009 suffered from a lack of explosive players that Rongen needs, the players in the 2011 cycle will not have this problem. The only thing that can drain talent to render Rongen's system ineffective would be if the players elect not to participate because they are beyond youth soccer (similar to how Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu declined to play in the 2009 U20 World Cup despite being age-eligible).
While other young players will emerge in over the course of the cycle, right now the team will have players like Luis Gil, Sebastian Lleget and Carlos Martinez running the offense. These type of players should do exceptionally well under Rongen's system because they will be given the freedom to use their creativity.
Another major reason why Rongen is still a good coach at this age group is his inclination to search far and wide for players that will thrive in his teams. For example, over the 2009 cycle, Rongen called in 113 different players and several of these players developed in unique ways. In the cases of Mix Diskerud and Giuseppe Nazzani (who was called into several camps but didn't make the final team), the players never even seriously played organized soccer in the United States.
It's very important to have a U20 coach that has such a willingness to search for players that develop outside the typical routes of US Soccer youth development like The Bradenton Academy. It shows both independence from the US Soccer structure as well as acknowledges the fact that there are good players who develop their games later and through other routes.
During Rongen's tenure, there have always been players that have emerged very late in the cycle to make the World Cup teams. Gabriel Ferrari emerged just a few months before the World Cup in 2007 and there were many players that made the roster in 2009 that did not make the qualifying roster. Again, this is a good thing in that it shows an open mind by constantly looking for players during the course of the entire two year cycle.
This certainly does not mean Rongen is without his flaws. He most certainly has them. His failure to make a third substitution in the 2003 quarterfinal against Argentina allowed Javier Mascherano to equalize at the end of second half injury time and cost the US a stunning victory. In 2007, Rongen stuck with the same group of players for every game and by the quarterfinals, they were worn down. In 2009, the starting lineup in the opening game did not appear to be the best the USA had to offer given the games leading up to the World Cup in the summer.
Still, the positives outweigh the negatives in evaluating the decision to retain Rongen as head coach for the 2011 U20 cycle. This hold true especially when you consider the players he will have at his disposal this time. Rongen is a good coach of skilled players and this cycle he will certainly have an abundance of type of players that have done well under him in the past. It should certainly be an attractive brand of soccer with plenty of skill and creativity on display.