RONGEN DISCUSSES US PLAYER DEVELOPMENT
With the US U20 national team having completed its fifth camp of the 2011 cycle, US head coach Thomas Rongen will now begin to assemble his core group moving forward after having looked at over 100 players.
In the past two camps, Rongen has had the opportunity to see many players who have not been regulars within the US system. Last month he worked with several European based players while in Holland, and this month his camp featured a number of Central and South American based players. After finding several players that he feels can contribute, Rongen will begin the process of narrowing the pool down
"The purpose of this camp, and in all actuality our last camp, we wanted to look at some unknown players out our system, so to speak," Rongen told YA from San Jose. "Really after this camp, we look at our first four camps and say, what do we feel? We looked at probably 100 plus players. Who do we consider to be our top 24-26 players and try to go forward [with them] as often as we can."
Moving forward with the core group will start with the Milk Cup in late July, which will likely be followed by a potential three team tournament with Mexico and Colombia in the fall.
Rongen, 53, is pleased with the last two camps because it uncovered players that he feels he can combine with established base players that include Tristian Bowen, Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo, Sebastian Lletget, Gale Agbossoumonde, Dillon Powers, and Perry Kitchen.
"I am very happy with this camp because we knew going in we weren't going to bat a thousand. To track U20 players that don't regularly play first team ball, where you can see those guys on TV, is sometimes hard. But I've made a real conscientious effort to travel to Europe, to travel to Mexico and South America and to look at as many players as I could in their natural environments."
Among the foreign based players Rongen singled out as having a successful camp in San Jose were Adrian Ruelas, Omar Salgado, Ernest Nungaray, and Victor Garza. All of whom are based in Mexico with the exception of Salgado, who recently departed Chivas because of their policy of only employing Mexican internationals.
Rongen also singled out domestic players Conor Shanosky of DC United and Andrew Baptiste of New York's Albertson Soccer Club. These domestic and foreign players are all strong candidates to be with the team as it moves forward in establishing its core group heading into next year's World Cup qualifying.
"That to me is a great batting average," Rongen assessed. "I think that between these two camps we identified seven to eight players that we really didn't know much about that I think can help this team going forward. You start looking at a deeper group in terms of quality and that's encouraging obviously. It's was a good camp."
With the Milk Cup now only three weeks away, the focus of the cycle will shift from exploring the deep player pool to winning on the field.
"I am looking for our best 18 to go to the Milk Cup," Rongen said of the upcoming tournament in Northern Ireland. "Availability is a little bit of an issue. But we want to go with a team that can win it. We want to go to the Milk Cup and now win. Everywhere where we go now we want to win tournaments and try to bring our best players."
"There are some clubs that are very good about releasing their players and there are some clubs that are not very good at releasing their players," he continued. "I would think that the majority of our MLS players will be available with the exception of the guys that are starting."
One player that has limited U20 experience this cycle is Galaxy forward Tristan Bowen who is continuing to get regular minutes. Rongen admits that he understands the Galaxy's reluctance to release the budding star but is also anxious to integrate him into the team.
"If Tristan Bowen continues to be a starter even with Edson Buddle and Landon Donovan being back then that's great for us," Rongen said of Bowen's situation. "Then I would obviously respect the fact that the club wouldn't release him."
One of the top concerns for Rongen before the World Cup is the tricky qualifying tournament that lies ahead next spring. The US will be considered a favorite but one bad game in this format could put the team in a very dangerous position.
"Our biggest concern, well, not a concern but obstacle right now is qualifying," Rongen predicted. "That's not always a given. It's getting tougher and tougher in our confederation. A lot of their players outside our country, even in our confederation are all pros. Sort of in a daily training and playing environment. I'm not saying all their leagues are great but they're tough games. They're catching up, quite frankly."
"You have some good cycles, you have some bad cycles - it happens with all countries in the whole world," he continued. "Argentina won in 2007 but didn't qualify for 2009. Mexico won the U17 World Cup then didn't qualify for the next U17 World Cup. It's never a given anymore in our region."
While this cycle is still in its early stages, Rongen and his staff feels as if this class is improved over the 2009 cycle which won one game at the World Cup, lost two, and failed to advance out of group play.
"I feel in all areas we have made improvements over our 2009 team," he evaluated. "I feel defensively we will be better. In all four lines, I think we've made improvements. Maybe still not as good as 2003 or 2007 when I coached the team. We've got some building blocks right now after this camp. And after four camps as a coaching staff we feel pretty good about what direction we are going."
This cycle marks the fourth cycle that Rongen has had as head coach of the US U20 national team, although he has long been involved with soccer development in the US. One of the major themes that will affect the American game is the growing influence of Hispanic in this country as playing for the United States becomes a more attractive option.
In San Jose, Rongen called in many Mexican-Americans for the current camp and thinks this growing trend will affect the American style of play.
"I think that is invariably going to happen," Rongen analyzed. "I think that style and systems happens over time. From that standpoint, we are still a fairly young country. Sooner or later I think we need to look at demographics. We need to look at our own country and see what our soccer country is. What kind of players are we developing through our normal sources or our normal ways?"
"Then maybe ask ourselves a question in what do we want the American player to look like?" Rongen asked. "What do we want our senior team down the line to look like in terms of stylistically? It becomes very interesting. I think this roster is pretty much a good indication as was our European roster [last month] that we've become the UN of football basically. We are a melting pot."
This melting pot is clearly evident to Rongen in two of his players at the San Jose camp that possessed both American qualities as well as those found in other nations.
"You look at Omar Salgado and Adrian Ruelas," Rongen pointed out. "6'2 and 6'3 Mexican-Americans that have had the benefit of American training and strength training but still their skill level is still like most Mexican players. So that's a rare combination."
With the player pool continuing to get deeper and the potential for a true style of the American game and player to develop in the near future, Rongen said that it's time for US Soccer to set clear achievable goals for the senior national team.
"It's not overnight but eventually we can get to the same point," Rongen said optimistically. "I feel firmly by 2022 which should be a realistic goal of this nation, at home, that we should put something in place that we should be able to reach the final four."
Rongen feels that achieving this result will take overhauls in the current system of American player development. He feels that the coaching priority should be towards much younger players.
"The foundation is there, we just have to cultivate it," he stated. "We have to get better coaches at the youth levels. We have got to structure certain things better. We've got to a better job at coaching education. If we really target zone one starting tomorrow, which is [ages] 6-12, we can make sure all those players are all technically and fundamentally sound."
Rongen, who was born in Holland and played in the Ajax system in his youth, feels that the best way to implement this plan is for the USSF to use his former club as a model, as it still continues to produce top European talent.
"Take a page out of the Ajax developmental book," Rongen said of the developmental techniques of his former club. "We can take the whole Ajax philosophy and their set up and put it into the United States but tweak it here and there."
"Dennis Bergkamp is the U12 coach of Ajax," he continued. "Our best coaches, because that's where the money is, are at the U16-18 teams and that's where we've already lost the battle. We haven't taught the players appropriately between ages 6-12."
Rongen says that the key to getting coaches to the lower level is not through US Soccer but rather with MLS who reap the financial gain from producing better players.
"At the youth level there is no money for those coaches," said of the current set up. "We've got to find a way to get our better coaches on the lower levels both through US Soccer initiative but clearly also put the onus on the professional teams because in the rest of the world, that is where development happens."
Rongen said that unless there is change in MLS regarding true development at the very young ages, the US will not be able to take the next step.
"Everybody in MLS needs to put a vested interest in doing it right," he concluded. "Spending some money on youth development and having teams starting at U8 all the way through U19s. If we don't do that, we will continue to wonder why we can't make the next step."