In 1999, the USA, with a team that included Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, finished fourth at the U-17 World Cup in New Zealand.
Never before the 1999 tournament had the USA won a game in the knockout stage of the U-17 World Cup -- and never since.
One would have expected greater success, in light of U.S. Soccer having created the U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Florida, in January 1999, not to mention all the other investment in the American youth game.
The low point for the U-17 program came in 2013 when the USA, the only nation that had played at all previous 14 biennial U-17 World Cups, failed to qualify.
Coach Richie Williams kept his job and is now in his second cycle heading the team and the Bradenton program. On Friday, when the USA faces Cuba in Honduras, begins the qualifying quest for the 2015 U-17 World Cup, to be hosted by Chile Oct. 17-Nov 8.
Williams’ current group got off to a promising start when in December 2013 it won the Nike International Friendlies with wins over England (5-1) and Brazil (4-1). One of the most impressive players from those wins, Northern Californian outside back Edwin Lara, has since switched allegiance to Mexico. But Williams retained a core of players from those early wins: goalkeeper William Pulisic; defenders Daniel Barbir, Alexis Velela and Matthew Olosunde; midfielders Christian Pulisic, Luca de la Torre and Alejandro Zendejas; and forwards Josh Perez, Joe Gallardo and Haji Wright.
While Lara went south of the border, Southern Californian Brandon Vazquez, at Club Tijuana since 2012, is on Williams’ team after having flirted with Mexico’s U-15s and U-17s.
A year ago, Williams said “This group, no disrespect to the last one, I think is a little more talented. I think we’re deeper in each position.”
These U-17s reeled off more tournament wins -- the Aegean Cup Championship in Turkey and Katalinski International Tournament in Bosnia – but most indicative that it may be a special group is the interest it’s gotten from foreign clubs.
By the time won the 2013 Nike tourney, Nomads product Gallardo had joined Monterrey and de la Torre was training with Fulham, where he’s now under contract. Perez had been training with Fiorentina and Barbir with Manchester City.
Pulisic has signed a long-term contract with Borussia Dortmund while Barbir moved to West Brom. Midfielder Alejandro Zendejas was signed by FC Dallas to a Homegrown contract last October. Wright has been a guest player at Schalke 04.
Three years after Donovan won the Golden Ball and Beasley the Silver Ball in New Zealand, the young duo helped the USA reach the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup, the most impressive American World Cup performance in history. 1999 alums Oguchi Onyewu, Bobby Convey and Kyle Beckerman would also go on to full national team careers and senior World Cup appearances.
Some U-17 alums -- Eddie Johnson, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Omar Gonzalez -- have made a significant impact on the full national team, but there’s never been a repeat of the Class of ’99.
The qualifying tournament in Honduras will give us a first glimpse of whether these U-17s are a golden generation in the making.