BRIAN SCIARETTA - Sunday, November 13, 2011
With the US U-23 team in camp in Germany, one player who is making his highly anticipated return to US youth national teams is Hoffenheim midfielder Charles Renken.
Renken, 17, was born in Zambia but moved to the Illinois as a child after he was adopted by an American family.
As a soccer prodigy, Renken quickly developed into force at the youth levels in the United States. In 2008 Renken moved to Bradenton, Florida to go into US Soccer's residency program for the U-17 national team.
Renken's rapid upward trajectory, however, was suddenly halted by a series of ACL injuries to each of his knees.
During his recovery in 2009, Hoffenheim signed Renken and this past year he has begun to reemerge as a player with the club's U-19 team.
US Soccer has closely monitored Renken during his recovery and now with the US U-20 beginning its 2013 cycle under new coach Tab Ramos, Renken is part of the team in its first camp.
"This is the first time with a US team in awhile," Renken told YA from Duisburg. "So it's great to be back and see all my friends. At the same time there are so many good players. It's great for me to be around good players so I can compare myself. For me, I'm just enjoying the moment."
For Renken, he has found the transition back to the US team easier since he has been playing in Germany and believes that the US team has been trying move towards a German-system at all levels since Klinsmann was hired as the national team head coach in August.
The US camp in Duisburg is now in its second week and the practices are similar to what he does on a daily basis at Hoffenheim.
"It has been an advantage for me since I know the system," Renken explained. "It's very physical [at Hoffenheim] and you have to work really hard. You have to be disciplined. Then coming to the national team where we are using the German system, it's a big advantage. Klinsmann is from Germany so I think that's why he is trying to implement the same system as the Germany system. So far it's similar."
The US camp in Germany is focused on both the US U-23 team and the US U-20 team. At this point, Renken is focused primarily on the U-20 team as he is also age-eligible for the 2016 Olympic games in Brazil.
"So far my chances for the Olympic team are not as big," Renken pointed out. "I'm looking forward to going into the U-20 camps and slowly progressing - getting to know the players and getting comfortable. I hope to score goals and helping the team get better."
Playing for mostly a U-20 team, Renken entered Friday's friendly against Azerbaijan's U-21 team as a second half substitute in a game that would end in 0-0 draw. Ramos asked Renken to play left midfield and this was comfortable for him since he has been playing multiple positions with Hoffenheim's U-19 team.
"For me it's good," Renken said of his positions. "At Hoffeneheim I've been playing left or right - sometimes defensive midfield. It doesn't matter because I can use either my left foot or my right foot. I was comfortable either way."
One aspect that has improved since he has moved to Germany has been his versatility. He has found that young midfielders developing in Germany are usually asked to play all midfield positions and are focused equally on both attacking and defense.
"In Germany, after you lose the ball you have to get back and defend," Renken said. "After you defend, then you have to attack. You can't just be an attacking mid - that doesn't work here. You have to be both."
In recent games with Hoffenheim's U-19 team, Renken has been playing in defensive midfield and the transition has been one he has enjoyed. He has also emphasized that the way the position is used in Germany is different that how it is used in the United States.
"Sometime when I watch German football, the most technical players are defensive midfielders," Renken analyzed. "They have to be able to distribute the ball once they get it. Then they have to help keep possession because that's very important as a midfielder. They are technical and very good with their minds in order to see everywhere."
Renken has enjoyed it at Hoffenheim so far this year and is confident it is one of the best youth academies in Germany. One of the key attributes he has noticed has been the similarity the teams within Hoffenheim all have among each other.
When he begins to make the transition to the U-23 team in the future, it won't be different from the coaching and style of play he has now at the U-19 team. Likewise, all the youth teams mirror what the senior team does.
US Soccer is now trying to make their U-23, U-20, and U-17 teams all fall in line under one similar system and Renken is confident this is will be a positive thing. At Hoffenheim, the uniform system within the club has only made things easier.
"Here it's all the same at every level," Renken said of development at Hoffenheim. "So when you move up, it's not different. You've done everything. On the field and off the field, everything they've done is very professional. They are trying to prepare us so that when we go to the first or second team, we are ready and know what we are supposed to do."
Renken has also found it easier at Hoffenheim since he is there with two very close American friends in Russell Canouse and Joe Gyau.
While many young American players have found it difficult to adjust to the rigors both on and off the field in Europe, Renken's transition has been made smoother by having familiar faces around him.
"It was easier for us since [Russell and I] got there at the same time," Renken concluded. "We all speak English. At the same time Joe was there already so we had someone to hang out with. Russell was next to me in the dorm. It was easier for us. If we are homesick, we are there for each other."