Sunday, January 28, 2007
Now that our Under-20 Men's National Team has qualified for the 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup to be held in Canada, I have five suggestions for coach Thomas Rongen on how to get our team razor sharp.

Time is of the essence for the U-20s. Heerenveen's refusal to release Michael Bradley posed a major stumbling block for Rongen ahead of the qualifying tournament, although the US was able to top its group with relatively few hiccups.

Bradley will be indispensable this summer, however, so Rongen will need to take full advantage of official FIFA international breaks from now until July.

Two long breaks will be available - one in late March and one in early June. The senior Men's National Team has already scheduled two matches to be played over the upcoming March break.

Will Rongen receive sufficient time with Bradley to fuse the midfielder into the team? Furthermore, will Rongen receive releases of his other European-based players such as Johann Smith (Bolton), Preston Zimmerman (Hamburg) and Robbie Rogers (Heerenveen) for camps prior to the tournament?

Answering these questions will be crucial to determining the tactical formation of the team and which additional players to call up as possible replacements.

I have some suggestions for our Dutchman:

Schedule camps NOW

Rongen should begin discussions with European club teams for the release of players well ahead of time.

Under FIFA rules, clubs must release players during international breaks… but that doesn't mean they can't make life difficult for both national teams and individual players, including the pressure to ignore National Team call-ups.

Call up large squads

A number of our key players, both in Europe and MLS, may get injured between now and July. Although alternates are available, it's clear that there is a large drop-off in quality between key players at some positions and their back-ups. Furthermore, a number of key European-based players may not get released from club teams until just before the tournament.

At the same time, there are interesting players at European youth academies that Rongen should evaluate.

For those who saw the action in Panama, it was clear that certain players, both professional and not, were struggling a bit. Namely, Sal Zizzo was less than convincing as a right wing in a 4-3-3.

Andre Akpan, even despite his "hat trick" in the first match (really a bit of a lucky brace), left something to be desired in his ability to finish opportunities and Quavas Kirk had some considerable organizational slip-ups at right back, the worst of which led to a penalty kick for Haiti.

These guys either need to be considered in other roles on the field - for example, making Kirk a right wing back-up - or their roster spots need to be re-evaluated.

Four months from tournament is crunch time. Some would argue it's too late to make roster changes. I would argue that Rongen must react to the performances of his players in the qualifiers because they were official games in a tournament format. The only other information he has would be based on training and friendlies against CONCACAF opponents.

Challenge our guys

A number of top-level teams will not be competing in Canada this summer and they would make great practice partners for friendlies.

As of the time of this writing, 18 teams have qualified for the tournament in addition to hosts Canada: North and South Korea, Japan and Jordan from Asia; Congo, Gambia, Nigeria and Zambia from Africa; the US and Panama from CONCACAF; Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Portugal, Scotland and Spain from Europe; Brazil and Uruguay from South America.

This weekend, we will know the other two South American teams to book passage.

Four notable omissions from Europe include England, France, Italy and Germany. Italy, in particular, would be interesting considering the traditional penchant to use bunkered defensive strategies like the one Guatemala recently employed in Panama that effectively stopped us in our tracks.

Although the CONMEBOL U-20 casualties will still be warm, Rongen should call on three teams that looked great in qualifiers, but will not be playing in Canada: Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. All three teams boast considerable tactical organization skills and technical talent on the field, especially in one-on-one situations.

The full 90 at high speed

During qualifying, the U-20's suffered from nervousness in the first 20 minutes of their matches and lack of concentration in the last 20-30. Even in the middle 40-50 minutes our guys played at the pace of their middling opponents rather than at the high pace that the top teams will play at in Canada.

The last match against Panama was the notable exception, but it was also a match where the pressure was off because our team knew they had already qualified. Our opponents in Canada will come out onto the field with guns blazing - we need to do the same.

Prepare for the knockouts

Just to remind everyone where we've fallen on our sword in past world youth championships - it wasn't in the group stage of the tournament.

In 2005, under Sigi Schmid, our team topped a difficult group by defeating Argentina 1-0 and holding Germany to a 0-0 draw before also beating Egypt.

In the first round of the knock-out phase of the tournament, our guys lost to Italy 3-1 after going up 1-0 at the half and crumbling with two own-goals (the first from Jonathan Spector, although FIFA attributed the goal to an Italian, and the second from Sacha Kljestan).

In 2003, under Rongen, our team topped the group stage and then defeated the Ivory Coast in the round of 16.

In the quarterfinals, we lost 2-1 after leading Argentina 1-0 through regular time. After allowing a second-half injury time goal, a defensive error led to Argentina earning a golden goal penalty kick that sunk our World Cup hopes.

Single elimination games, extended overtime periods, penalty kicks, yellow card accumulation - these are all critical elements of the knockout phase that wear down players, both physically and psychologically.

Rongen needs to put special focus on preparing our players to sustain 120 intense minutes on the field. He especially needs to train everyone – from back-up players to goalkeepers - on taking penalty kicks, as well as make sure all our ‘keepers are fully prepared to block them.

The coach also needs to reduce the quality gap between our starting and back-up players, because it could very well be one of the back-ups - on because of injury or card accumulation to a starter - which determines our fate in Canada.

Of all these elements, perhaps mental strength will be the one small factor that determines who wins and who goes home - I doubt such a veteran coach needs any input here.

And after all this preparation, we’ll still need a bit of magic on the field. I believe this could be the best U-20 National Team we’ve ever assembled. We have offense-minded players well suited for a formation that puts numerous attackers forward.

When focused in Panama, they showed just how many of our guys can score. In Canada, our boys will need to outperform their own expectations in order to improve upon the less-than-glorious legacy they've inherited.