CAPTAIN CANOUSE READY TO LEAD
As the European season gets underway in August, Russell Canouse is prepared to make further strides in his progress at Hoffenheim.
Canouse, 18, officially signed with Hoffenheim in 2012 but has been with the club since he was 15. Last month he was named as captain of the club's U-19 for the upcoming season. While he served as captain at the end of last season with the U-17s, this was particularly an honor for him.
"It's always a great reaction to being named team captain, especially as a foreigner," Canouse told YA. "But I wasn't too surprised because I was Hoffenheim's U-17 captain after the first six months. It was still a great feeling. Being captain, you always have to be responsible and look out for your teammates. It's not just you anymore. You have to make team gel, on and off the field. It's a lot of responsibility but I think I'm mature enough to handle it."
In recent years, Hoffenheim has been a club that has welcomed young American players. In addition to Danny Williams and Fabian Johnson at the first team, young players like Joe Gyau, Zach Pfeffer, and Canouse have been in the organization.
During his years at Hoffenheim, Canouse has noticed that the perception of American players has been changing and it is no longer seen as unusual to see quality American prospects in Germany.
"It's definitely changing," Canouse explained. "When I first came to Hoffenheim, they were kind of surprised. It was kind of unusual to have an American. Now that we have a lot of players and U.S Soccer is growing. They expect good players from the U.S. They don't look at me any different."
This year will be a transitional year for Canouse. As he prepares to lead the U-19s early in the season, he is also aiming for a potential jump to Hoffenheim's U-23 team (also known as the reserve team).
In addition Canouse is adjusting to a positional switch. Last year he was playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation where he was one of the two holding midfielders. That formation allowed him to attack more since he had partner deep in the midfield to provide cover when Canouse moved into the attack.
Now, Hoffenheim's U-19 team will play with a straight 4-3-3 and Canouse will be the sole holding midfielder. He has more room to play in that area of the field but he also has to be more disciplined in his runs into the attack.
So far, he has adjusted well into the 4-3-3 and believes it will be his preferred formation. That success also saw him invited recently to train with Hoffenheim's first team. Hoffenheim narrowly escaped relegation last season but are expected to be a vastly improved team in the Bundesliga this year.
The opportunity to train with the first team was encouraging for Canouse both in that it was a reward for his play at the youth level and also it was a reinforcement that he is not out of place at the highest level.
"It was great experience to play with Bundesliga players," Canouse said. "For my development, it was important. The players are physically bigger than at my age group but I was able to compete. Speed of play is something you can always work on but I don't think I'm too far off."
On the international front, Canouse is expected to play a larger role as the US U-20 national team gets set to start a new cycle for the 2015 World Cup in New Zealand. Canouse has been a veteran of U.S youth soccer dating back to the U-14 level when he was invited into a camp with Zach Pfeffer, Zach Steffen, Trevor Haberkorn, Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, and Jordan Allen. Together those seven players have gradually moved up through the US system together and are expected to move into the U-20s together.
The new U-20 cycle already appears to be among the most professional American teams of that age group at the start of that cycle. In addition to Canouse, Ben Spencer, Zach Pfeffer, Julian Green, Omar Thompson, and Romaine Gall are all with European teams. In North America, Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, and Amando Moreno are also with professional teams.
The US U-20 team has struggled in recent years with the 2013 and 2009 teams failing to advance out of group play at the World Cup while the 2011 team failed to even qualify for the tournament. The opportunity to put the team back on the winning track after the previous shortcomings is motivation for Canouse.
"It definitely motivates me because it's a World Cup," Canouse said. " I know the last group didn't do as well as it wanted but what it shows you is that every international game is difficult."
For now, Canouse is motivated to represent the United States internationally and it is a goal that rises above everything else. The World Cup is still two years away but there is generally excitement from Canouse and the other players of his age group to begin the cycle.
"I'm just really excited to be moving up," Canouse said. "With the U-20's now you're competing for a World Cup. It's exciting for me but I know it's going to be difficult because it's two years from now and you don't know how others will develop. But it has always been an honor to play for my country. It is for most people but for me it's something special. We have a strong group. Playing a World Cup is a dream of mine. I couldn't imagine the feeling."