THE CHICKEN OR THE EGG?
Occasionally, some of us in the US soccer community are a little too smart for our own good. Sometimes, we need to leave our complex analyses aside and get back to basics.
My inclination where the Under-17 team that just crashed out here in Nigeria is concerned is to do just that. I've been hearing a lot of talk regarding this tournament - and revolving around the Under-20 World Cup as well, for that matter - that what is really important at these youth tournaments is not winning, but developing new players to stock the full national team's pipeline.
I have been asking myself how it is possible to do one without doing the other. It's obvious that if you don't develop players, you're not going to win much. The US has been proving that for years. But even with good players, which this team had, if you don't focus part of the program on winning, how do you expect those players to develop into winners in the future?
Furthermore, if the players aren't around at the later stages of these tournaments to show their wares, and the growing professionalism and style of the American player, how are they ever going to make the career moves in the numbers necessary to get them into the positions they need to be in to grow professionally? If these youth teams can't win, why would scouts bother to move more to the US in search of young talent in which to invest their club's developmental money?
Unfortunately, in that respect both the U-20 and to a lesser extent the U-17 World Cups this year were failures for the USA.
Let me start by saying that I think the leaders of this U-17 team, and head coach Wilmer Cabrera, are winners. That makes it disappointing when they lose, in this case half their games in Nigeria. Other coaches who should know, those of Spain and Italy for example, also thought they were quite good, and had more than cursory praise for their Americans and their style of play after defeating them.
Sure, there were some holes in the lineup, and the finishing went cold for a couple weeks, but that doesn't change the fact that this US team was different. They played attractive, possession-based soccer and took it to their opponents, and that's a great start, and definitely reason for optimism. It should be clear that, at least with this generation of players, the US is slowly obtaining that goal of developing good players.
But what about winning?
In that regard, the team did less well. It won two, and lost two, and looked mediocre all along the way in terms of the killer instinct needed to be a championship level team. Against both Spain and Italy there were plenty of chances to snatch victory and not give it back, and the team failed to do that. Italy and Spain both fielded professional teams that knew how to win, even if they couldn't do a lot of the things the Americans were doing on the field.
It's frustrating to see the US always fall flat at these youth tournaments. With so many participations, even be chance, they should have been able to do better by now. The list of teams that have gone further than US in recent years at youth events - Austria, Hungary, Burkina Faso, and now Costa Rica, for example - even includes countries that don't really even aspire to qualify for World Cups, except maybe once in a blue moon.
That speaks volumes about American soccer. For years, we've been focused on winning and little else, resulting in a terrible to watch long ball style that gets us victory against tactically disadvantaged regional opponents and not too much more.
Now with some players developing and the style potentially becoming gradually more attractive - if, as I hope, this is a trend that will continue - many are anxious to throw results out the window, and talk more about developing players.
That's a rash thing to do. The problem with this U-17 team was not that they didn't know how to play attractive soccer, or that they lacked the skilled prospects, it was that they didn't know how do the things that would lead to a win when they needed to. A little grit and heart would have gone a long way for team full of skilled players on which the solid but un-sensational Tyler Polak was the player who stood out most, for his consistency.
So you might think that winning is less important at this level than developing talent, but a winning attitude at all levels develops into a program that is feared and respected around the world. It pays dividends that can't be measured in terms of skill or talent, and eventually brings championships to nations.
That is not to say that to say that developing quality payers is less important than winning. Nor is it necessarily less important to play attractive soccer than win. That's a rhetorical argument soccer fans will always have. I fall on the side that would sometimes even prefer to see a team play well and lose than play ugly and win, but that's irrelevant here.
The question at hand is what does the US needs to do to develop a winning senior team at the highest level, one that can compete for World Cups? I would suggest that in that respect the choice at the youth level between developing players and winning is a false one. The two are inextricably linked, and until the US can do both, we won't really be doing either.
The United States has certainly shown glimpses of that winning attitude in the past, though creativity and attractive play have always been hard to come by. If Wilmer Cabrera's team did nothing else in Nigeria, at least they proved that the US is capable of both, just maybe not at the same time, yet.