USA gets 'challenging group' at U-17 World Cup

By Mike Woitalla

One goal for the USA at the 2015 U-17 World Cup in Chile (Oct. 17-Nov. 8) will be to win a knockout-stage game for the first time since 1999, when the USA finished fourth at biennial tournament with a team that included Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Bealsey.

After Thursday’s draw, just getting to second round looks like a formidable challenge. Not only did the USA land in Group A with host Chile, it opens against defending champion Nigeria. Croatia, which conceded only one goal at the U-17 European Championship, completes the group.

“It's always good when you know your opponents and can really start to prepare for what’s ahead,” U.S. U-17 coach Richie Williams said in a press release. “It’s an exciting moment and we’re ready to get to work. Chile, Croatia and Nigeria are strong teams, and we know it's going to be a challenging group. We’re confident in our players and are looking forward to the World Cup.”

USA group stage schedule
Oct. 17 vs. Nigeria in Santiago
Oct. 20 vs. Croatia in Vina del Mar
Oct. 23 vs. Chile in Vina del Mar

NIGERIA. The Golden Eaglets’ 3-0 win over Mexico in the 2013 U-17 World Cup final gave the Nigeria a record four titles, one more than Brazil. Nigeria, which also won titles in 1985, 1993 and 2007, is tied with Brazil on seven semifinal appearances. Coached by former African Player of the Year Emmanuel Amunike, who played in the 1994 World Cup and won a 1996 Olympic gold medal, Nigeria struggled in qualifying. It fell to South Africa in the semifinals and lost 3-1 to Guinea to finish fourth.

CROATIA. In its two previous appearances, 2001 and 2013, Croatia exited in the first round of the U-17 World Cup. In eight qualifying games for the 2015 World Cup, Croatia conceded only one goal. A penalty kick shootout loss after a 1-1 tie with Belgium forced it into a playoff game it won, 1-0, against Italy to qualify. The USA swept a pair of 1-0 decisions against Croatia in Zagreb in April 2014.

CHILE. After an impressive performance at the 2014 World Cup, where it exited in a shootout loss to Brazil, and hoisting the Copa America on home soil last month, Chilean soccer is on a roll. At the U-17 level, Chile's best performance came with a third-place finish in 1993. Its last appearance came in 1997. Although an automatic qualifier as host, Chile took part in the 2015 South American U-17 Championship, where it was outscored, 4-12, while losing all four games against Uruguay, Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia. The USA played Chile to a 2-2 tie when they met in the opening game of the 2014 Copa Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins.

2015 U-17 World Cup Draw
Group A Chile, Croatia, Nigeria, USA
Group B England, Guinea, Brazil, Korea Republic
Group C Australia, Germany, Mexico, Argentina
Group D Belgium, Mali, Honduras, Ecuador
Group E South Africa, Costa Rica, Korea DPR, Russia
Group F New Zealand, France, Syria, Paraguay
The top two finishers from each of the six groups and the top four of six third-place finishers advance to the second round. Live TV coverage in the USA by Fox Networks and Telemundo.

Looking back with John Ellinger

John Ellinger, currently technical director of the Soccer Association of Columbia and Baltimore Armour, coached the USA at three U-17 World Cups, including the best-ever 1999 squad.

We asked Ellinger if he’s surprised that the USA hasn’t won a knockout game since 1999.

“There have been some pretty good teams since then and I would have expected one of them to win a knockout game,” Ellinger said. “And when it went from 16 to 24 teams [in 2007], knockout games begin in the round of 16, so I would have thought we’d do better there. It does surprise me a little bit because there’s been some quality that has come out of the U-17 program these last years.”

The USA reached the second round in six of their seven appearances since 1999, and failed to qualify for the 2013 U-17 World Cup.

“When I look back at the 1984 age group I had in 2001, I always feel bad for them,” Ellinger said. “We didn’t win a game in our group, but we had Nigeria and France, which made it to the final, after playing Japan in the first game. But I look back at that group of players and quite a few of them have been capped [by the full national team] and had good pro careers.

"That 2001 team had Eddie Johnson, Santino Quaranta, Chad Marshall, Justin Mapp, Mike MageeTyson Wahl and Jordan Harvey are still playing MLS.”

As for the 1999 squad, which also included Oguchi Onyewu, Bobby Convey and Kyle Beckerman, Ellinger said, “We had Donovan and Beasley. Those kinds of players make coaches look pretty good.”

When the USA, in Richie Williams’ first cycle as U-17 coach, failed to qualify for the 2013 World Cup, it ended the USA’s streak as the only national to qualify for each of the first 14 editions of the biennial tournament.

“I think everybody was shocked because we always go,” he said. “I felt bad for Richie and told him so. And told him to keep plugging away. I was happy he stayed on. I’ve done coaching schools down at IMG [in Bradenton] so I’ve watched training. He had a good group, runs a good practice. I watched all the qualifying games this time, and they looked good.

“It’s especially difficult at this age level to make predictions. But the Nigeria game is obviously going to be a huge game.”

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