The big dance is a month away.
Perhaps half of the players U.S. under-20 coach Thomas Rongen has taken north of the border for a pair of games against Canada in the next week won't be on his final roster, yet in the Canadian contingent are several players Rongen has been anxious to observe up close as he makes his final roster decisions for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup (June 30-July 22 in Canada).
"There are two players who potentially not only will make the squad but are knocking on the door to start," says Rongen. "Healthy competition is good for this team and that's the way it should be."
Freddy Adu, Michael Bradley, Nathan Sturgis, Jozy Altidore, Chris Seitz, and Dax McCarty are just a few of the under-20s who won't join the team until it gathers for its final phase of preparation in mid-June. It plays the Chilean under-20 team at the Meadowlands June 23. Sturgis and Bradley are on the U.S. Gold Cup roster, the others are with their MLS teams.
Amaechi Igwe (New England), Anthony Wallace (Dallas) and Bryan Arguez (D.C. United) are the only MLS players on the squad for matches against Canada June 3 in Ottawa and June 6 in Kingston.
Tops on the list of those trying to crack the starting lineup is Gabriel Ferrari, a native of New York City who joined Italian club Sampdoria in January. He made one appearance this past season, against Inter in the Italian Cup, after being groomed in the MetroStars youth programs and also training in Brazil with Cruziero.
In March, Rongen summoned him to an under-20 camp in Dallas and after scoring twice against SMU he netted again as the U-20s defeated the Haitian national team, 2-1.
"In a team sense, we have to make two or three very tough decisions, there will probably be two or three changes from the qualifying team," says Rongen of the group that scored 11 and conceded only one in the CONCACAF qualifiers. "The emergence of Ferrari has made competition up front very good, quite frankly, between Altidore, [Preston] Zimmerman, Andre Akpan and Ferrari."
Akpan, of Harvard, scored three goals in the qualifiers but could be edged out if Rongen elects to take just four forwards. Also on the bubble is Sal Zizzo, one of several UCLA players in the player pool whose wing play could land him a spot if Rongen decides a three-forward alignment will be effective. Zizzo and Akpan are with the squad in Canada.
In addition to giving several players their final shot to make the roster, Rongen is using these games to acclimate them to the conditions they will encounter at the world championships. Several foreign-based players have little or no experience playing competitive matches on artificial turf.
"Argentina will be playing in the World Cup on turf in Toronto, and we will be too in Montreal and Ottawa," says Rongen. The USA lost to Argentina, 1-0, May 15 in Rochester at PAETEC Park. "That has become a little bit of an issue for us, we want to train and play games on turf as often as we can.
"We see that in MLS. Freddy Adu and Chris Seitz and [Jozy] Altidore and [Amaechi] Igwe play on turf, their home games, and a lot of the teams, i.e. Dallas and Dax McCarty, have played there already. So we'll go into camp with players who are somewhat accustomed to it, which might be a little bit of an advantage, quite frankly, over maybe Poland and South Korea. There is a difference between a grass surface and artificial turf so that's a plus for us."
The team is also using the same training facilities and staying in the same hotels it will use during the U-20 world championships.
Extensive fitness testing is being conducted to give Rongen a baseline as he prepares to blend players who are at vastly different points in their playing/training cycles.
"They are all in different phases of their seasons," says Rongen of three distinct groups that can be further divided into sub-groups based on playing time. "The European guys are done, the college guys haven't played for a long time, and the MLS guys are in the middle of their season but there still will be a difference between the guy who plays every weekend 90 minutes vs. the guy who plays every two or three weeks in a reserve game.
"I hope we don't have to do much fitness. I hope we can work on tactics and bonding as a team. What we Americans can do is create the right spirit so we can be successful."
U.S. U-20 ROSTER FOR CANADA TRIP (May 30 to June 6)
GOALKEEPERS: Diego Restrepo (University of South Florida), Steve Sandbo (SMU)
DEFENDERS: Tony Beltran (UCLA), Amaechi Igwe (New England Revolution), Ofori Sarkodie (Indiana University), Sheanon Williams (Boston, Mass.), Julian Valentin (Wake Forest)
MIDFIELDERS: Bryan Arguez (DC United), Dane Shea (College Station, Texas), Anthony Wallace (FC Dallas), Mitchell van den Beld (FC Utrecht)
FORWARDS: Andre Akpan (Harvard), Gabriel Ferrari (Sampdoria), Johann Smith (Bolton FC), Preston Zimmerman (Hamburg SV), Sal Zizzo (UCLA)