The first national teams most people hear about are the U-17s, who compete in biennial World Cups for boys and girls. But the U.S. Soccer Federation runs U-15 national teams for both genders.
The boys program is headed by Jim Barlow, who has for the last 13 years been head coach of Princeton, where he played college ball for U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley. At the youth level, Barlow captained the Union (N.J.) Lancers when they won the McGuire Cup U-19 national championship in 1988 under Coach Manny Schellscheidt, who has been the technical director of U.S. Soccer's U-14 national identification program since 2000.
Barlow, 39, served as Ken Lolla's assistant with the U-15 program from 1999 until taking over as head coach in 2004. Each year, from August through July, the U-15s hold five events, including an international trip. While a few of the players attend all events, about 70 in all go through the program during a cycle.
Of the 40 players in the current U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla., 27 were part of the U-15 pro-gram. More than half of the players on the U.S. squad that reached the quarterfinals of the 2007 U-20 World Cup took part in the U-15 program.
"Identifying guys for the U-17 Residency Program is a big part of what we do, but we also try and consider this group more of a pool and try to deemphasize that this is the national team," says Barlow. "We don't want to put too much pressure on them. We don't want them to feel their future as a soccer player is being critiqued and analyzed every time they step on the field.
"We want them to be comfortable to experiment, to get after it, and just see if they can push themselves to another level."
Most of the players invited to the U-15s come out of the U-14 program (which is fed mainly by ODP) al-though others make it after being discovered by USSF scouts, and an increasing number are identified by playing with clubs in U.S. Soccer's Development Academy.
Besides identifying players for future national team selection, the U-15 programs aims to improve the players' game.
Says Barlow, "We don't want them, after a week-long camp, to be cocky and say, 'Hey, I've arrived.' But rather go back and be role models for the other players in their club about training habits and some of the ideas that we've talked about here."
A big part of the experience is familiarizing the players to the increased speed of the game at the higher levels, where certain maneuvers that work for them at the club level - such as getting out of traffic on their own - don't work.
"With their clubs, a lot of them can put their head down, use their body, take a few touches, maybe be a little bit faster with the ball, and be able to bail themselves out while not having a picture of what's going on around them or where everyone else is," Barlow says. "We push them to see more, to pay more attention before the ball arrives. To be cleaner with their first touch so their head can be up and make the clean connection with the next play. We want them to use their gifts of being shifty, and being skillful and getting guys off balance. But we want them to use them when they've sized up the play and that's their decision and not just because it's their escape mechanism."
Barlow says players aren't so much selected based on position:
"At our age, we're looking for 'soccer players' and as you move forward you need to try and continue to put the pieces together as results become more important."
A big challenge at this age group is that the players are still developing physically. Growth spurts can affect their play, so Barlow and his staff keep in mind that some players who might struggle with their physical changes now will become more comfortable later. They also realize that some might excel because of athletic gifts that won't give them the same advantage when others catch up physically.
Players may often be exposed to more criticism than they're used to by their club coaches, who might cuddle them for fear that they'll move to another club.
"We give them snippets of what the game should look like, or sound like, or feel like at this level," Barlow says, "and then we step back and let them take over. When that happens and the soccer comes to life, that's one way we measure how successful our week has been."
FOUR KEY COMPONENTS.U.S. U-15 girls head coach Tad Bobak, 58, spent the first 12 years of his life in Brazil, and the next nine in Europe before moving to California in 1971. His coaching career, which started in AYSO, has included stints in the pros and collegiate ball with both genders. In 1979, he volunteered to be the L.A. Aztecs' equipment manager so he could observe legendary Dutch coach Rinus Michels train the likes of Johan Cruyff.
In 1986, Bobak coached Fram-Culver, which included future Hall of Famer Marcelo Balboa, to the McGuire Cup title. And for nearly two decades he's been co-director of the girls powerhouse So Cal Blues.
Without a U-14 program on the girls side, U-15 girls are selected mainly through ODP, with a handful of players Bobak finds through recommendations. Eleven of the 21 players on the U.S. squad that finished runner-up at the inaugural U-17 Girls World Cup in 2008 came through the U-15 program.
"It's mainly a search process," says Bobak, who took charge of the program in 2005. "There's not a huge amount of coaching or international games. ... It's filter and search."
Like the boys, the girls have five events a year.
"We're looking for four qualities," Bobak said. "Players who are mentally tough, physically tough, technically and tactically proficient. We want to have the great trademark that American players have - mental and physical toughness - but we also want to play creative soccer."
Despite the success of the women's national team, he says there's still room for improvement in the technical caliber of U.S. players.
"American culture and society, which wants instant success and instant winning, does not allow the technical and tactical to evolve enough because there's no patience," he says. "So technical and tactical suffer, but the mental and physical components thrive in the impatience of the instant reward and instant winning envi-ronment."
At the U-15 level, Bobak says the girls' mental attitude is revealing:
"Players who have a very high work ethic and a battling attitude, if they have that mental ingredient, it's a good clue that it will carry them through the years. Because that's not coachable. That's built in. It's a sign that that girl's going to last."
(This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue ofSoccer Americamagazine.)