By Mike Woitalla
How many players on the U.S. team currently competing at the U-17 World Cup will make a significant impact on the full national team?
Judging from the average of the previous 13 U.S. teams that have competed at each of the biennial world championships since 1985, the answer would be one.
Roy Rees coached the USA at four U-17 World Cups, from 1987 through 1993. He guided the young Americans to historic victories over Brazil in 1989 and Italy in 1991. After the USA, led by Claudio Reyna, beat Brazil, 1-0, in 1989, Brazil’s coach Homero Cavalheiro said, “The United States deserved to win today. They were better as a team; they were better individually.”
Asked how he imagined the future of American soccer two decades ago, Rees says, “I would have expected it to be further along than it is now. They've done well but could have done much better.
"They have developed a whole bunch of very average players but not the great players you need to get that little bit extra. There's a lack of creative players."
Mike Burns and John O'Brien, who played for Rees in the 1987 and 1993 tournaments, were also among the U-17 alums who had the most success with the full national team.
Rees was succeeded by Glenn Myernick (1995), Jay Miller (1997), John Ellinger (1999, 2001, 2003), John Hackworth (2005, 2007) and Wilmer Cabrera (2009, 2011).
Ellinger's 1999 team, which was the first that went into full-time residency in Bradenton, Fla., finished fourth and remains the only squad to win a knockout stage game. It included Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu and Bobby Convey. That class proved to be an aberration.
Miller’s 1997 squad included Taylor Twellman and Danny Califf, who went on to long pro careers but had limited success with the full national team. Ellinger’s 2001 and 2003 squads included Eddie Johnson and Jonathan Spector, respectively.
Hackworth’s 2005 team included Jozy Altidore and Neven Subotic, now one of the top defenders in the German Bundesliga, but he plays his national team ball for Serbia.
Rees, a Welshman who served as an English FA staff coach and worked for FIFA as an international coaching instructor before taking over the U.S. U-17s, cites many reasons why the USA hasn't made more profound progress in producing exceptional players. Topping the list is an emphasis on athleticism rather than on skill and understanding the game.
"America had the reputation of being better athletically than everyone else, because at the Olympics they ran faster, were stronger, and threw things farther,” he says. “Those are things that have nothing to do with soccer. At the youth level, big, strong and physical may win games. But the smaller players develop skills to combat the big and the physical, and when they get the growth they’re the ones who get the results."
He also warns of the perils of advocating an orthodox approach to player development:
"It was, 'Coach this way, or get out.' There are different ways of developing players, which is obvious when you see how great players have emerged from different countries."
He says that the insight into the game that great players acquire is something that they develop naturally when they're young, not from being told how to play, but by being given the freedom figure the game out.
“What matters is being able to perceive the game, to predict what happens next," says Rees. "They need to be placed in a situation where they can see it for themselves rather than having it laid out for them. That needs to happen at the youngest levels. They need to be allowed to express themselves and not be tied to the coach’s instructions, or they’ll play like robots.”
Now retired and living in Southern California, Rees is watching this U.S. U-17 team on TV. Not judging it by the scorelines, but whether there are within the group some players with that little bit extra that hints of greatness.
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The USA opened its U-17 World Cup campaign with a 3-0 win over the Czech Republic on Sunday with goals by Alejandro Guido and Esteban Rodriguez and late sub Alfred Koroma. In their second Group D game, the Americans face Uzbekistan on Wednesday (4 pm ET, Galavision, ESPN3.com).
Uzbekistan lost its opener, 4-1, to New Zealand, which got a hat trick by Stephen Carmichael. Carmichael, making his first start for the Kiwis, hadn’t been part of the squad during qualifying nor for a pre-tournament tour to Qatar.
Go HERE for U-17 World Cup results and schedule.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)