U.S. future brighter than U-20 showing suggests

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.
12 comments about "U.S. future brighter than U-20 showing suggests".
  1. Alvaro Bettucchi, October 6, 2009 at 8:39 a.m.

    I look forward to Paul Gardner's articles. Not always right, but 90% right on. He couldn't have written this article any better. Basics and playing time is most important in all sports. Also,..yes, we need more hispanics. They might have the edge in the basics, but they also must fit in with the overall team. That's where the coach comes into play.

  2. Mike Fredsell, October 6, 2009 at 8:56 a.m.

    This has been going on for far to long. We have no creativity at any level and when we do (Torres, Adu) our coaches do not know how to use them. As a country we have produced big, fast players with limited skill that are good in the air, so we rely on set pieces to score. It's hard to watch any national team play with only defensive midfielders in the center of the field. I used to travel to a lot of the big tournaments and there were plenty of players with skill and creativity but you never saw those players being recruited for colleges, especially in the northeast. You have to go south and west to see teams play with creativity.

  3. Walt Pericciuoli, October 6, 2009 at 11:06 a.m.

    As usual, Paul has it mostly right. However, I diagree with his prediction that the future will get better. Our latest new academy program does not stress the competitive playing envirnoment that Paul suggests is needed. Also, Hispanics and other skillful players are still being mostly overlooked. Even if they have been identified, as an academy player, they are overwhelmed at that level where the emphasis is on training and more training. In that environment, players are broken down to fit the mold of the "pro" trainers concept of the game, which is still very English, stressing physical play and hard work over skill. I think that the current crop of players as on display at the U20 level were probably great practice players. The academy programs are designed for "player development" not for producing skillful intelligent creative players. Those players can only shine when given freedom. That freedom rarely occurs in the training envirnoment. Our players need to play more games with the freedom to work things for themseleves.

  4. Richard Stevenson, October 6, 2009 at 11:29 a.m.

    So where is this undeveloped talent? How will they be brought to the national team level? And where is the "new guard" of US National Team Coaches?

  5. David Flanagan, October 6, 2009 at 11:59 a.m.

    Lets review, Academy Program is two years old, their first goup of U-18 players are now or should be part of the U-20 program. The performance of that team was unacceptable. Paul mentions a new guard, look at the list of Academy program scouts, more names of guys who have been part of the USSF Coaching group for decades. The english influence still overwhelms creativity, we want put our players in a box and define a style that no longer matches the worlds game. Please have a look at coaches who were part of the US National tems as players, who now are active coaches in youth club programs and utilize the experience they have on the national stage and give them the opportunity to be part of the National team developmental programs. These guys have been there and represented the country, now they need the chance to share and open the program to creativity along with the discipline to win. The coaches are there somenone has to take a chance, clean house and start over.

  6. Charles Ritter, October 6, 2009 at 3:08 p.m.

    Here in the United States the players we are seeing at the highest levels are not the best athletes this country has to offer until the kids in this country can look at soccer and see a Michael Jordan or La Bron James playing soccer we will always be behind the leading Soccer Powers. To compensate we take average athletes spend thousands of dollars on trainers and coaches on them. U.S. Soccer needs to put an effort into getting the better athletes in this country interested playing the game at the earliest ages and should not be for the kids who can afford it. In other countries the kids play in the streets all day and night with no coaches telling them what to do this is how the best players develop their games.

  7. Eric Lue young, October 6, 2009 at 3:31 p.m.

    A lot of true statements. Too many "athletes" representing the US, and not many soccer players. Ching and Cooper should have been converted to central defenders a long time ago. There are no power forwards in this game.
    "Lungs and legs " players like Beasley are done. It is a shame to have a player the quality of Torres not given a chance because he does not fit into a team that defends more than anything else, because they cannot keep possession of the ball.
    Wilmer Cabrera seems to be doing a good job of selecting players. Let's hope he does not get forced into picking these robotic players the other coaches heve chosen, to play the ugliest version I've seen of "the beautiful game".

  8. Stan Jumper, October 6, 2009 at 4:11 p.m.

    Thomas Rongen attempts to shield himself from criticism by blaming the players, and then the system from which the players are trained. He should shoulder the blame by not using a system that allows creative players to be productive and deliberately ignoring creative talent in choosing his squad. He has ignored in recent years excellent creative college players from Wake Forest and other colleges by complaining these players don't practice full time etc. Yet players from Wakeand Duke along with other talented collegians are doing well in the pro ranks immediately. He is stiffing coach as many northern Europeans and the US would do better by looking south of the border for its coaches such as Wilmar Cabrera, as opposed to northern Europe. People that complain there are not talented players within the US should actually watch some of the Academy games. There is a lot of talent and it grows by the year. We just need national coaches that recognizes soccer skill over grit and brawn.

  9. Bob Ryan, October 6, 2009 at 6:33 p.m.

    It was very disappointing watching the U-20's. We still lack the basics for that level such as shielding the ball or moving without the ball. I see it in our Sr. Team, too. We play this rough and clumsy style soccer that goes back to the training they received in their early days.
    I would love to see a Klinsmann come in and take over the whole program starting from the youth and continueing to the National Team. We have the athletics but have never grasped the skills we need to be consistant at this level. The players are taught all these tactics but can't make them work when put under any pressure. Can you say...overcoached!

  10. Joseph Krantz, October 6, 2009 at 9:46 p.m.

    Rongen should have been fired years ago.

  11. Kevin Leahy, October 6, 2009 at 9:58 p.m.

    How does Rongen keep getting coaching jobs?

  12. Delroy Wallace, October 7, 2009 at 8:05 p.m.

    Sterilty breeds sterility! The "sameness" in US Soccer will always not surprisingly bring the "sameness" in performance.

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