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USA ready for turf wars at U-20 World Cup
by Ridge Mahoney, June 30th, 2007 7:30AM
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TAGS:  under-20 world cup


They have players who played in the 2005 version of the under-20 world championships, several MLS starters, many of the top college players of recent vintage, and a few guys who play for European clubs.

Josmer Altidore, the most exciting American teenager since Freddy Adu, is on the team. So is Adu, who believes this tournament -- his third U-20 world championship -- is his springboard to fame and glory in Europe. Midfielder Michael Bradley isn't glorious or famous yet, but he appeared in 21 games for Dutch club Heerenveen last season and played several solid matches for the U.S. at the Gold Cup.

The U.S. is playing in the FIFA U-20 World Cup for the sixth straight time and the 11th time overall. The 24 teams are divided into six groups and along with the U.S. in Group D is Brazil, South Korea and Poland. The top two teams in each group plus four third-place teams advance to the knockout phase.

"We are in a position to compete for a second-round spot," says Coach Thomas Rongen, who is coaching a U-20 team at the world championships for the second time. "You've got to figure Brazil is the favorite in our group, Korea is always good in this age group and Poland, from looking at the tape, is a typical Eastern European country that's going to be very hard to break down and very methodical in their approach.

"Every opponent confronts us with some interesting dilemmas because their styles are completely different. But it will allow our players to become better players over this tournament."

One aspect of the team's preparation Rongen thought important was to play warmup matches on artificial turf, which is used at all six U-20 venues except Edmonton. It lost, 1-0, to Argentina May 15 in Rochester, and split two games with Canada (4-1 win, 4-0 loss) in the Ontario cities of Ottawa and Kingston before beating Chile, 2-1, last Saturday at Giants Stadium.

"We see that in MLS," says Rongen. "Freddy Adu and Chris Seitz and 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."

Altidore leads a group of six forwards that includes Robbie Rogers and Sal Zizzo, who are suited to play on the wing, and Gabriel Ferrari, who is trying to crack the first team at Italian club Sampdoria. Johann Smith, who plays in the English Premier League for Bolton, injured his foot in a closed-door scrimmage against New Zealand and has been replaced by Preston Zimmerman of German club Hamburg.

Rongen envisions the playmaking role for Adu, who will have some combination of Danny Szetela, McCarty and Bradley with him in midfield. Rogers and Zizzo can play wide in midfield depending on the formation.

The defensive linchpin of Rongen's back four is Nathan Sturgis, traded by the Galaxy last week to Real Salt Lake along with rookie Robbie Findley. Sturgis, a holding midfielder or outside back in MLS, plays central defense for the U-20s, with Julian Valentin or Ofori Sakordie his partner in the middle.

"Nathan has an innate ability to read the game very well and very easily," says Rongen. "He reads things very, very quickly, especially for an American player. We rarely see that."

Left back Tim Ward and right back Tony Beltran are the projected starters on the outside. Rongen took only six defenders, so if the U.S. advances, he may have to scramble to fill those slots as injuries and suspensions add up.

Seitz, a massive presence at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, has the No. 1 goalkeeper's shirt. A shaky start in MLS notwithstanding, he's a strong, quick, brave athlete.

The general consensus on this team is with its array of forwards and Bradley and Adu prompting attacks from midfield, the U.S. can score goals. How far it goes in the tournament will depend on stopping the opposition.

"If you look at the guys we have who can attack and the success they've had, getting chances and goals shouldn't be a problem," says Sturgis. "How well we do in the tournament, as is usually the case at this level, depends on how well we defend. Every team has attacking players who can cause problems, and so do we."

GOALKEEPERS: Brian Perk (UCLA), Steve Sandbo (SMU), Chris Seitz (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS: Tony Beltran (UCLA), Amaechi Igwe (New England Revolution), Ofori Sarkodie (Indiana Univ.), Nathan Sturgis (Real Salt Lake), Julian Valentin (Wake Forest), Tim Ward (Columbus Crew)
MIDFIELDERS: Freddy Adu (Real Salt Lake), Bryan Arguez (D.C. United), Michael Bradley (Heerenveen/Netherlands), Dax McCarty (FC Dallas), Danny Szetela (Columbus Crew), Anthony Wallace (FC Dallas)
FORWARDS: Andre Akpan (Harvard Univ.), Josmer Altidore (N.Y. Red Bulls), Gabriel Ferrari (Sampdoria/Italy), Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew), Preston Zimmerman (Hamburg SV/Germany), Sal Zizzo (UCLA)

Click here for all 24 U-20 rosters.

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