[Q&A] U.S. under-20 coach Thomas Rongen had just a few days to reflect on his team's showing at the U-20 World Cup, in which the Americans lost in overtime to Austria, 2-1, Saturday in the quarterfinals. Before leaving Wednesday to join the U.S. teams at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Rongen spoke with Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney about whether any of his players are ready for the full national team, what American defenders are lacking, Freddy Adu'sprogress, and how this quarterfinal elimination compared with the 2003 loss ...
SOCCER AMERICA: You coached the under-20 team at the 2003 world championships that also lost in the quarterfinals. Did this loss hurt more?
THOMAS RONGEN: This one hurt more, I think, than we lost in 2003, because that was to Argentina. It went to overtime as well, but it's still Argentina, this one is Austria. No disrespect to Austria, they proved to be a good team, just like the Czech Republic [which defeated Spain on penalties] in the other quarterfinal.
We felt we had enough to get to the final four. We fell short.
TR: I think our lack of big-game experience, for all our teams except maybe the under-17s, catches up to us sometimes. Bob Bradley and I spoke about that. Because of our confederation, because we can't get our teams together - especially the 20s, which are kind of a black hole - on a regular basis, and the conflicts of college, guys playing on foreign teams, and MLS, we just don't play enough hard games.
SA: What other elements do you think the U.S. teams lack?
TR:We've developed some very good attacking players. Where we're struggling at all our levels are good defenders who are comfortable on the ball. Aside from Nathan [Sturgis], and even he struggled in the last game, we don't have enough Nathans out there. We have, and this is no disrespect, Marvell Wynne and [Oguchi] Onyewu. They are great defenders but they're marginal in tight games; when teams are able to pressure with good organization, like Austria and which Uruguay did as well, we have a tough time getting anything going offensive-wise to establish a rhythm.
So we become a counterattacking team that sporadically, because of some great individual talent, can still create some chances. That's something we continue to work on and look for those kinds of players.
SA: The next step for most of these players is the Olympic team. Who has the best chance to earn important roles at that level?
TR: That core group of guys, the spine of the team and a few other guys have that chance. I think Sturgis continues to do well. The big question mark is where he would fit in at the next level? Is he a fullback, a holding midfielder? He's undersized so could he play in the middle? But he's a very talented player.
I thought [Michael] Bradley and [Danny] Szetela formed a good pair there in the middle in our system. We played [Sal] Zizzo on the right but I think all of them could play on the right side of a 4-4-2 as well. Freddy [Adu] still showed he can play at that level and continues to make strides. [Jozy] Altidore proved he can score goals.
Zizzo showed some flashes of a guy maybe Bob should look at, if he can do it consistently over 90 minutes. The same with Robbie [Rogers] on the other side. Those are the obvious candidates.
I don't think you can look at any of these guys yet for the national team, except Michael, who's already played for them. All of them need to make progress, more so in understanding what does it take in tight games, like against Austria. It's more a mental thing and trying to do the little things right.
SA: How would you compare the Uruguay and Austria games, both of which went to overtime with the score tied, 1-1?
TR:I thought our commitment against Uruguay really got us there. We talked about adopting a philosophy. There's a difference in wanting to win or refusing to lose. We did that against Uruguay but never got to that point against Austria. The Brazil and Uruguay games were two unbelievable games emotionally. They took a lot out of us physically, obviously, but also mentally.
To recharge the batteries again and then in an awkward game where things don't fall where you want them to fall, where we don't have the possession, rhythm, and creating chances that we had done in previous games, we didn't have the collective mindset. We had a few guys fade in and out.
We're really disappointed not getting to the round of four.
SA: Adu brought a lot of fire and intensity to his play, elements we don't see much of in MLS.
TR: He really made a conscious effort. We've rarely seen Freddy leaving his feet and tackling. He won that ball in the game against Brazil and it was almost a marginal foul where he makes contact with the guy, and Jozy picks the ball up and scores.
He needs to get even better at tracking and some of those areas. You don't want to kill all the areas he's so good at. A lot of guys made great progress.
Before the World Cup we talked with the guys about what we felt they needed to do to get better at the next level and be considered legitimate MLS players, and be considered for the Olympic team. You can play sporadically and flashes of brilliance are great, but there are other parts of the game that are very important as well
SA: Somebody at U.S. Soccer said the Uruguay game is the kind of game U.S. teams usually lose.
TR: That's a good example. The players really understood it was not going to be a pretty game and everybody, including our creative players, really had to sacrifice for the team. They didn't have to win the game by themselves but be a good teammate, solidify defensively, and hope to get something going forward, which we did. It was still not to the extent I'd like to see, because we didn't really have that against Austria as much as we had that against Uruguay.
SA: Most of these players have yet to earn consistent starts on their club teams. How big an obstacle is that to their development?
TR:Having four or five good games at the under-20 World Cup, hopefully translates to more time in MLS. Is Chris Seitz going to be on the bench for Real Salt Lake the rest of the year? What will that do to his progress? Does Szetela go back to Columbus getting an occasional game and playing five or six more reserve games? They need to be consistent players.
If those guys don't get those competitive games, if they don't become part of the starting 11, it becomes very hard for them to continue to make progress. They might be very good for me but become average MLS players who aren't just good enough in the eyes of some coaches to start for them.
We look at that across the board. Some of our guys playing for the full national team go back to Europe and might just play reserve ball. That needs to change obviously.
SA: Final thoughts?
TR: I've been to two [U-20] World Cups: six wins, three losses, one tie. For our country, losing twice in overtime in the round of eight is pretty darn good. We're just still a little bit short in the real big games.