The U-17 Men’s national team fell to the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica last Wednesday to the tune of 1-0. In so doing, the young men strayed from the fluid, attacking, creative style of soccer that has been a hallmark of their age group, instead falling into the mediocre, unremarkable style that has plagued Jürgen Klinsmann’s men for some time. Sunday’s rematch with the plucky Jamaicans, unfortunately, saw more of the same.
Each match at the CONCACAF championship preceding the aforementioned defeat at Jamaican hands saw the United States display skill and panache absent from the United States’ Men’s National Team, a style that led to golden, though decidedly gilded, results. Rather than exploring new strategies, constantly shifting personnel, and thoroughly bungling match after match, the U-17 team was a buzz saw from the opening whistle of its first match, scoring more goals against Cuba than the senior team managed in the final 4 matches of 2014.
The soccer played under Coach Richie Williams in the early stages of this week showed the potential of the American soccer machine, putting on a clinic of attacking soccer, rather than the mishmash of contrary tactics and personnel turnover that has plagued Klinsmann’s group. Unfortunately, the seeming departure from uncertain, timid soccer proved to be short-lived, crushing the dream of an easy qualifying run into powder.
The draw and defeat to end this past week, against Honduras and Jamaica respectively, did have an element of bad luck to them, as an unusual bounce and inconsistent officiating provided both opponents with goals they otherwise should not have recorded.
Despite the (needlessly) thrilling qualification Sunday night in a shootout, there remains the fact that the United States’ U-17 is plagued by similar troubles to those dogging the senior team in international competition. And, sadly, the slightly senior U-20 group has displayed many of the same characteristics as this most recent incarnation of the United States’ U-17 national team.
Maddening inconsistency and a lack of overall cohesion in the developmental process continue to spell the downfall of American youth squads, as well as the senior national team. Teams, especially at the youth level, that should be forces of nature, rather than a perpetual shambles.
From a personnel perspective, this U-17 team has several exciting prospects that are extremely intriguing for their lack of reliance on athletic superiority to produce fantastic results. None of the players on this roster are physical monsters with limited skill, who score goals or make tackles made possible by superior athleticism alone.
A player like Alfred Koroma, who was nearly complete physically while competing at this level, is nary to be found amongst this U-17 squad, though Haji Wright comes closest to being a pure physical specimen. The stars of this team prefer to press the issue via skill, rather than physical dominance, and play in a fashion that should be enhanced by maturity, rather than fall victim to stagnation once their peers match their physical development.
In the past week, however, this U-17 team has gone from unstoppable force to a near farce. Against Honduras, the U-17s conceded an early goal, rallied to tally 2 of their own, only to concede an equalizer in a fashion shockingly reminiscent of recent senior team games. In fact, against Jamaica on Wednesday, it would not have been outside the realm of possibility to see the names Wood and Wondolowski on the field, such were the similarities between the misses of those players and their younger counterparts.
A player like the aformentioned Haji Wright, owner of some 30 goals or so at the U-17 level, managed to miss a wide-open net from some 7 yards out. Offside or not, such a shot must be buried, not sent into the realm of “what-if”. Other players had similar efforts, only to miss by margin wide and slim. If someone has secretly put a hex on American offensive talent, it has taken quite well.
A team that poured in goals against teams like Cuba and Guatemala was completely stymied (twice!) against a Jamaican team that was marginally superior in physical talent, yet deficient in nearly every other facet of the game. Rather than systematically breaking down the Jamaican defense with movement and skillful passing, the U-17 team looked as hapless as the senior team for large stretches of the match.
Certainly, there were instances of excellent play, such as a cross resulting from the volley of a crazily bouncing ball that sprang an attacker into a one-on-one situation against the Jamaican keeper, only to go, along with every other, wanting. The entire Jamaica match played out like any number of matches from 2014, the United States struggling mightily to convert chance after chance.
Despite an obvious gulf in talent, the U-17s allowed themselves to be bullied around the field, managing to only equal the Reggae Boyz in shots on goal despite creating more chances and nearly doubling Jamaica in corners. To not tally even once is a serious failure on the part of a team that is supposed to be the embodiment of a brighter future envisioned by the Technical Director of the USSF, especially given the personnel on hand.
Haji Wright, as already mentioned, has tallied numerous times against all manner of competition, yet failed to score against a fairly vulnerable opponent. Josh Perez, nephew of the Hugo Perez, and Joe Gallardo each scored four goals prior to Thursday’s defeat, yet also failed to put a stamp on the match.
Gallardo, in the interest of full disclosure, had suffered a knock in the draw against Honduras, though that hardly serves as an excuse. Bad games happen even to elite teams (7-1), however the regularity of these inopportune defeats at international tournaments across all age groups can only be interpreted as an institutional failure. Naturally, the logical end to that conclusion is an inspection of the USSF as a whole, especially its nearly schizophrenic approach to the development of American talent.
Examining the failures and areas for improvement in scouting talent alone could be the subject of a multiple-volume tome, so this section will strive to focus on more general issues with the USSF structure as a whole. Primary among them has been the lack of attention paid to identification of domestic talent.
A player such as Miguel Ibarra, who is clearly regarded as good enough at the international level to be called in repeatedly, only appeared on the American radar in the past few months while plying his trade in Minnesota of all places. As a rule, American players seem to take longer to develop to their full potential, yet a player like Ibarra should have been in the development pipeline of some team at the top tier of American soccer.
Leaving prospects, even those who need polishing, to knock around the fourth division of soccer in the United States with barely adequate coaching is hardly the approach needed to transform the United States into an elite soccer power. Players like the current U-17 team certainly warrant a great deal of attention, yet the net must be widened to include those who do not demonstrate extreme promise at such young ages.
Clint Dempsey, the second-most prolific scorer in American history, did not represent the United States on any international level until 2003, and was capped for the senior team in the dying days of 2004 at the tender age of 21. Forty goals later, Dempsey is set for one final ride in 2018, should his skills and body permit. Imagining what might have been had Dempsey been given premium instruction and more opportunities is a recipe for heartburn.
Opportunities for consistent development have existed for players in a select number of areas only, rather than for as many as are able to earn a look. Talent identification has taken a step forward with the advent of so many MLS academies; however the main source of advanced training and opportunity for young American players remains overseas, in the academies and clubs of Europe or Mexico.
Until the USSF can create an environment where American players receive the vast majority of their development on domestic shores, the Ibarras of the world will continue to fall through the cracks. The most critical aspect of fostering this sort of environment is recruiting, and retaining, coaches who are able to produce positive results at a consistent rate.
This makes the dismissal/resignation of Hugo Perez, tied for fifth on the all-time goals list, all the more puzzling, as Perez was well-respected and developed many connections with Mexican-American dual nationals, in addition to putting a great product on the field.
The point of seeking to change the culture in American soccer is to elevate those who will shift the course of the organization toward the stated goal. Removing those individuals who are actually making headway is completely backward and against everything that Jürgen Klinsmann has pushed as his goal for the United States.
While investment similar to that of Germany’s is certainly a long way off, Klinsmann, and the United States, cannot afford to drive off those actually pushing the USSF as a whole forward. Doing so is counterproductive in every sense of the word.
While the U-17s managed to slip past the Jamaicans in their rematch by the slimmest of margins, securing qualification in a dramatic penalty shootout by a single goal, the very nature of their qualification is cause for great consternation amongst American fans. Refrains bemoaning the lack of attention given to soccer by American athletes are no longer accurate.
The United States is second in the world in youth soccer participation, yet despite this gargantuan pool, the same failures persist in international competition. To err on the field is human, but to completely forego a search for solutions to institutional problems is incompetence. Much has been said by the soccer powers that be in the United States, now it is time for action.