BRIAN SCIARETTA - Friday, December 3, 2010
Another United States Under-20 camp is in the books and head coach Thomas Rongen cannot help but feel pleased with how his team performed at the Torneo de las Americas tournament in Atlanta.
In the tournament, the US played to consecutive 1-1 draws against Mexico and Colombia but would fall in the penalty tie-breakers in both games. Despite those results, Rongen was content with his team's effort especially against Mexico where Rongen felt his was the better team.
"We continued to make progress [against Mexico] which was really nice to see in areas we thought we need to get better – possessing the ball, creating more opportunities," Rongen said to YA. "The mere fact we were able to put Mexico on their back heels, I thought we probably deserved a little bit more out of the game. We didn't but saying that I was very pleased."
In the opening game of the tournament versus Colombia, the US started off slowly and gradually picked up their pace to take a 1-0 lead. But Rongen then made a series of substitutions that did not work out and next year's Under-20 World Cup host nation scored a late equalizer.
Rongen was adamant about not making the same error twice and played the starting eleven the whole game against in their following match versus Mexico.
"We picked a group we thought could execute [against Mexico] and we allowed this group to grind it out a bit because I think they deserved it," Rongen said of the strategy against Mexico. "Their playing, their mentality, everything was right about them. You learn your lesson too. Against Colombia we made some changes and we lost our rhythm a bit."
The tournament also marked the competitive U-20 debuts for two key US players in West Ham's Sebastian Lletget and Maccabi Haifa's Alexander Zahavi.
Zahavi had previously represented Portuguese youth national teams but recently decided to switch his affiliation to his birth country of the US.
"Zahavi to me was a plus," Rongen evaluated. "I thought overall there were more positives than negatives. I think that hopefully we're not only building a very good eleven but we're building quality depth as well which is nice to see."
Lletget, on the other hand, was involved in the U-20 camp, but because of a serious case of mononucleosis, he has missed playing most of this year at both the national and club level.
"It wasn't surprising for me that after an average performance for him against Colombia, I think that we saw shades of the Sebastian that we know [against Mexico]," Rongen added about Lletget. "We also know that he came from a very serious injury or illness and that he's still not where he needs to be. He's going to make progress and he will be a very good player for our group."
Rongen has also struggled this cycle to get many top European based players involved with the U-20 team as their clubs have frequently been denying their release.
For the Torneo de las Americas, Rongen sought to invite 1860 Munich forward Bobby Wood, Derby County forward Conor Doyle and Hertha Berlin defender Anthony Brooks, but each were denied by their clubs.
Rongen also decided to let Adrian Ruelas stay with Celtic where he is on trial but awaits a possible full transfer or loan to the powerful Scottish club. In addition to Ruelas, Rongen also will have the addition of former German youth national team standout Fabian Hurzeler of Bayern Munich.
With talent still yet to come, Rongen knows tough decisions are ahead.
"I think with this group, only time will tell how talented this pool is," Rongen discussed. "On paper we will have to make some tough decisions by qualifying time in which 20 players will represent our country but that's a good thing, I think. We have some options and we have some depth in our attacking position. At the end of the day, the players will determine eventually how we are going to play and who is ultimately going to make this roster."
Rongen also notes that there is room for improvement with this team as it progresses into 2011. A big part of the equation will certainly be how the players perform at the club level where Rongen will be closely watching.
"We have to improve in all areas," Rongen said bluntly. "With national teams you can't really build anything over an extensive period of time. So you try to get your best players on the field. You don't have them together on a consistent basis."
"Let's be honest, I don't develop players," he continued. "We develop through playing games. Development happens at the club level. So we are trying to figure out, by playing tough games, which guys can play at this level and which guys potentially have the ability to play at this level."
Rongen said that when he selects players, he has an eye towards the future by selecting players that he feels can contribute eventually to the senior team.
"At the end of the day, my number one priority is to try to push as many guys to the Olympic team and eventually the senior team," Rongen assessed. "That's why I will take a 1993 like Omar Salgado who has a tremendous upside. He might not be ready to start for us right away but in two years will probably leapfrog over a few other guys because of his size and technical ability."
"So I am trying to win games, trying to qualify, and trying to develop players for the next level. Then I try to put it all together – it's an interesting puzzle."
As far as moving players ahead to the senior team, Rongen has found a good amount of recent success. Two players on his current team, Juan Agudelo and Gale Agbossoumonde, were capped recently by US head coach Bob Bradley. In addition, the 2009 U-20 team was not the strongest of youth teams but Brek Shea and Mikkel Diskerud have also proved to be part of Bradley's plans.
Rongen does not dismiss the fact that some players could have a conflict this summer if Bradley wants to use a few U-20 players for this summer's Gold Cup. Still, Rongen thinks this is a positive aspect of the job.
"It wouldn't surprise me if [Bob Bradley] and I will talk about some guys that are currently on my team," Rongen said of players making the jump to the senior team. "We'll work through that as best we can. We keep finding guys still within our developmental system in the US but also outside our system which is nice to see. I am happy for all young players that are going to make the step to the next level and who perform well and become legitimate members of our senior team eventually. That's really my number one job."
Rongen is also excited that his job recently became a lot easier with the announcement that MLS was going to reintroduce the reserve league to give younger players the chance at having more playing time. As a key figure in US youth development, the importance of the reserve league cannot be understated.
"It's huge," Rongen said of the reserve league. "In the inner circle I'm glad that I am respected by the MLS people - general managers, owners. I've always said, we've got to bring this back not only for [the league's] sake but clearly also for the U-20 team. I think the last World Cup spoke volumes that we weren't ready with a bunch of MLS guys."
The US U-20 national team will not be off for that long following the Torneo de las Americas. Next up is a camp in Ft. Lauderdale tentatively scheduled for December 12th through the 19th.
Rongen will once again use this tournament to evaluate some players that he has either yet to bring into the U-20 set up or has only infrequently used.
From the college ranks, Michigan forward Soony Saad and UCLA midfielder Kelyn Rowe are specific players Rongen mentioned that he would call-up. They will also join Philadelphia Union forward Jack McInerney who will join the team for the first time in six months.
Among the European –based players, Doyle will get a December invite and is likely to attend. Ruelas will also probably join the team as Rongen has indicated the Celtic trialist is part of his plans moving forward.
Hoffenheim winger Joseph Gyau will also get an invitation and attend his first U-20 camp. Gyau's Hoffenheim teammate Charles Renkin is also on the radar but Rongen admits that December may be too early for the talented Renkin who is trying to comeback from ACL injuries in both knees.
Following the December camp, Rongen will hold another camp in January where he really wants to bring in what he feels are his top 26 players that he has discovered to date. It will be part of the German winter break so Wood and Anthony Brooks should be able to attend along with Hurzeler who will make his US debut.
As for where the US team stands now only four months away from U-20 World Cup qualifying, Rongen is excited but also knows that much work has yet to be done. He is confident that he is leaving Atlanta on a positive note.
"I walk away here knowing that we still need to get better," Rongen concluded. "But also with some real positives about the group in general and certain individuals I didn't know much about prior to this tournament. I think I have a pretty good feel for this group right now. I think that this team going forward with the addition of some guys that weren't here but are still part of our team – some of them are starters and some of them weren't released – we're building something that we can be excited about."