POSITIVES TO BE HAD
This week the USA Under-17 team lost to Italy 2-1 in the round of 16 at the U17 World Cup and will be coming home earlier than some people had expected. Despite the fact that some will label this tournament as a disappointment, history may still yet prove this to be a very productive group of young players.
One thing that is clear, the lack of finishing will certainly be the lasting legacy from this team at this particular tournament. In each of the four games the USA played, putting the ball in the net was a serious problem. Among the most egregious were two breakaways against the keeper in the opening game against Spain, the point blank shots against Malawi and UAE, and then the failed penalty against Italy.
It is also certainly possible that inability of this team to finish may not be a real problem. Over this past two year cycle, this team has played many games against top competition such as Brazil and Chelsea U17s and in many of these games, finishing was not problematic. They simply may have hit a cold streak during the World Cup.
But even if finishing is an area of concern, it is very important to realize that a lot of things must be going right for a team's biggest problem to be scoring. A team must first be able to create many opportunities before finishing can enter the equation. Head coach Wilmer Cabrera was correct when he said that he would have been a lot more worried if the team never had chances.
It is important to note that while results at youth tournaments are certainly good, they can be overrated. There are many examples of teams that have won at the youth level where most the players have not gone on to much success at the senior level. On the other hand there are examples of youth teams that have produces significant talent but who have not won.
Winning is certainly a good thing but what really matters in youth programs is developing players on an individual basis and making sure they are ready to play at the next level.
This USA team clearly has many positive attributes and once the usual disappointment that follows any loss wears off, USA fans should be excited about these players and their potential moving forward.
In each of the games, the USA was able to play the game it wanted to play. The team was able to keep possession and routinely advance the attack into the final third. American midfielders were able to regularly display their vision with numerous through-balls to players making well-timed runs.
For the first time ever at any level, the USA played with defenders who were skilled on the ball and who were able to moving the ball into the attack and play a part in possession. Also of significant importance, the USA was able to move off the ball well and show a solid sense of positional awareness.
Simply put, this USA team, despite narrow losses, actually played with Italy and Spain; two counties among the best in the world at developing young players. They did not bunker or concede the midfield while trying to score on a set piece or a quick counter. This USA team was able to play straight-up and match the skill with some of the best teams in the world at this age group.
After the USA lost to a Spanish team that was reduced to ten men in their first game, Spanish coach Gines Melendez was very complimentary of the Americans. Melendez said that normally playing with only ten men is not much of a problem but it became a serious problem because the USA really knew how to play the game.
Sure enough, the USA played like a team with a man advantage because the second half was all one way traffic towards the Spanish goal.
When compared with any of the previous American U17 classes, this team showed the most impressive skill at the individual level. Even the heralded 1999 team that featured Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu, and DaMarcus Beasley were able to advance largely because of a favorable draw. They did not have to face the traditional powers this team faced. That team had one goal victories over New Zealand, Uruguay, and Mexico before a suffering a shootout loss to Australia and a 2-0 loss to Ghana to send them to fourth place.
Now this certainly does not mean things are perfect with regards to how the USSF handles player development. There remain serious flaws in the system. The Bradenton Academy process needs to be adjusted. As of now, a core group of the players remain together at the Florida training center for two years between U17 World Cups.
With it being impossible to project the future development of players at these young ages, the USSF needs to get more players involved in the system. Right now, they have an approach where they have all their eggs in one basket. Gambling and trying to predict which 14-15 year old players will develop into the best professionals is a risky strategy where some top talent can get overlooked.
A top goal simply needs to be where they have more and more kids rotated through Bradenton during each cycle. Bradenton is not the problem and talk of its elimination is a knee-jerk reaction coming at the heels of one loss. The real problem is not having more American academies like Bradenton that can get more young players exposed to USSF coaching and scouts.
While many USA fans want young American teenagers to move abroad to European academie or reserves, this cannot be depended on as being a solution. FIFA rules are complicated regarding the international transfer of professional players under the age of 18 and most of our players do not have EU passports which would facilitate such a transfer. Creating and improving domestic options must be a central focus of the USSF.
With more and more MLS teams creating academies to develop youth players, viable domestic alternatives are being established with regards to player development. The next step is to improve the coaching at these levels. Indications are that this is happening, albeit very slowly.
So while criticism is being launched at the youth program after the loss to Italy, it remains very premature and unfounded. The real success of the 2009 U17 team is not known yet. The achievement will be measured in what steps each of the players takes to further their careers.
At this age, it is clear that not all or even most of the players will achieve success at the professional level. But if a solid fraction is offered European academy deals or any other opportunity that gives them the chance to play regularly under good coaching, the 2009 team will have been a success. Furthermore, if any U17 team produces three or four players that become regular contributors to the senior national team, it is very good class. This team has the ability to surpass that number.
Despite the fact there are many major holes in the USA's youth development system, progress is being made. The first decision the USSF should make moving forward should be to extend Wilmer Cabrera's contract. The former Colombian international has clearly has been the best coach to date to improve the USA players' individual skill to a point where they can play and regularly attack against elite teams.
The next set of decisions the USSF needs to make is to try to figure out ways to introduce more coaches of Cabrera's caliber into the USA youth system. Cabrera can only work with so many players. In a large country like the USA, having more quality coaches is a necessity.
So while these American teenagers leave Nigeria without any trophies, they will leave with the knowledge and confidence that they have the skill to play with the world's best at their age group. While time will tell what happens in the future, this group may still become the first U17 class that has produces a large core group of players that can play with true skill.