By Paul Gardner
How to explain the performance of the American under-20s in Egypt? Not qualifying for the second round -- we've come to think of that as a given after past successes -- is just part of it. An equally baffling aspect is that remarkable 4-1 win over Cameroon sandwiched between the two woeful 0-3 defeats to Germany and South Korea.
Taking that Cameroon game first -- I fear that was the aberration, the result that was out of character. Fact is -- despite the scoreline -- the USA did not play particularly well in that game. But Cameroon played poorly -- surprisingly poorly, for the African countries are usually formidable at this age level.
Overall, then, the U.S. play was pretty bad. Well, that can happen in age-group soccer. It is always possible for one particular group, one year, to be a poor year when there are no bright prospects to be seen.
That could be the case here. Certainly, we were warned about this beforehand, with all the talk about this group not having any stars. But that is often a situation that coaches like to position as an advantage by stressing the solidarity of the group, and how the strength of their squad lies in team play. Before the tournament, Coach Thomas Rongen made reference to exactly that point, talking of the team's "collectiveness ... We have to be organized, we have to be disciplined. If this team can overcome the slight lack of individual brilliance, and emphasize that they are a harder-working team, we'll get the results we want."
Actually Rongen got quite carried away and announced that "We have to be organized, we have to be disciplined and if we do that, we can win against any team in the world." That was pretty silly, but the rest of his argument sounds reasonable enough.
Except to those of us who have been listening for some 40 years or more now to American coaches -- particularly the coaches of American national teams -- spouting the same gospel. What it adds up to is this: we may not be as skillful as our opponents, but we'll counter that by being bigger and stronger and working harder.
This is the will o'the wisp that has led many an American team to failure in international competition. I'll confess to being somewhat surprised that Rongen should be using it at this late stage. Because Rongen surely knows better.
It must be painful for the coaches of Rongen's generation to admit the fault. Because they are, by and large, responsible for it. It is Rongen's generation -- which includes our current senior coach Bob Bradley -- who have produced these players.
The more you think about that, the more absurd the situation becomes. Here we are, sitting on top of a rapidly expanding gold mine of genuine soccer talent, yet a huge part of it -- the Hispanic part -- has been quite deliberately ignored. Rongen's post-tournament lament that his players are part-timers, that the MLS players in particular don't get regular playing time, is another argument that sounds reasonable enough.
But, dammit, this is the year 2009. We've had decades of youth development, decades of coaching schools and clinics, and decades of pro soccer. Yet our under-20 coach still feels obliged to make excuses about our skill level?
To take some specifics from the under-20s. The two center backs -- Ike Opara and Gale Agbossoumonde -- are huge, speedy athletic players. Good in the air, of course. Yet their skill level with the ball on the ground was often embarrassing. Their tackling was suspect, their passing frequently just plain horrible. Both of them started all three games. Opara didn't finish the third game, as he got himself red-carded (after giving away his second penalty kick of the tournament) -- something that could hardly have come as a surprise.
But poor passing was endemic throughout the team. Jorge Flores, Brek Shea, Brian Ownby, Jared Jeffrey and Mikkel Miskerud were all guilty of giving the ball away numerous times. Goalkeeper Brian Perk does not escape -- his repeated launching of long balls -- often straight to the opposing goalkeeper -- was soccer at its crudest.
How often did this team move forward with any rhythm to their play, with the swift confident movement of players in easy control of the ball? It happened occasionally, usually involving Brian Arguez and/or Dilly Duka, the two players who showed some promise in that area. But it takes more than two. Mostly, once an American passing movement started, one was simply waiting for it to break down -- either through bad passing, or inadequate control.
Accurate passing and slick control are the basic minimums. To be performed under pressure. Without those, you can forget about obtaining consistent results at the international level.
Were these the best players we have? Could Rongen have made a better selection? Different players, yes -- but better? Doubtful, because we simply have not nurtured our best talent properly.
But that situation is changing. The old guard, the coaches who somehow manage to make our national teams look like college teams, are on their way out. Given the huge amount of under-developed young talent that we have, I'm totally confident that America's soccer future is a lot brighter than the disappointing U-20 showing in Egypt suggests.