On Friday, Japan faces North Korea in the final of the 2016 U-17 Women’s World Cup, a biennial championship launched in 2008 that the USA has never won.
This time, in Jordan, the USA, coached by B.J. Snow, exited in the first round, after losses to Ghana (2-1) and Japan (3-2) followed a 6-1 opening win over Paraguay. Two years prior, under the same coach, the USA failed to qualify.
U.S. Soccer went to great lengths to prepare the team for this World Cup. In the nine months before the tournament, Snow’s team played 14 international games -- including five games in Grenada at the U-17 Concacaf Championship the USA won. Since the cycle began in 2015, it held training camps in Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, San Diego, Italy and at the National Training Center in Carson, California. The squad trained in Cyprus before the World Cup in Jordan.
U.S. Soccer’s youth national team program begins at U-14, and most of the players on the roster had been part of U-14 and/or U-15 national team training camps.
USA U-17 Women's World Cup
Year Finish (Coach)
2008 runner-up: 3W-2L-1T (Kazbek Tambi)
2010 did not qualify (Kazbek Tambi)
2012 first-round exit: 1W-0L-2T (Albertin Montoya)
2014 did no qualify (B.J. Snow)
2016 first-round exit: 1W-2L-0T (B.J. Snow)
“The first time there was a U-17 World Cup, Kaz Tambi did pretty well with that team,” says Tony DiCicco, who coached the USA to the 1996 Olympic gold medal, the 1999 Women's World Cup title, and the 2008 U-20 Women's World Cup crown. “What has happened since then?”
U.S. Soccer has taken several steps to expand the women’s national team program within the last decade. April Heinrichs was named Women’s Technical Director in January 2011 and the federation made several full-time hirings for the women’s youth national team program, including Snow, who became the first full-time U-17 coach in 2013; April Kater (Head Development Coach, hired in 2013); and Michelle French (hired full-time in 2014 to lead the U-20s). More recently, Mark Carr, Jitka Klimkova and Jaime Frias were hired as Development Coaches.
“This is a failure,” says DiCicco of the 2016 U-17 Women’s World Cup performance. “U.S. Soccer has to look at this. The thing that troubles me: There are not many U-17 teams in the world that have the programming opportunities, number of training days, training camps as we do. In 2014, we didn’t even get of Concacaf and in 2012 we didn’t get out of group play. It’s a failure of our system. We can’t blame everything on the coach of the team.”
As far as the performance in Jordan, DiCicco says the Ghana game was distressing because the USA played in a manner that suited Ghana.
“An open, athletic game, really back and forth,” DiCicco said. “The game that Ghana can’t win is a possession game, because most African teams are not organized enough. They’re athletic and if we controlled possession we would have broken them down, instead, we played the game that they could win. And that troubles me.”
“In the Japan game, I was troubled by the fact that the game could have been 6-2. They had so many chances. They broke us down so easily. I was disappointed not in the loss but in the quality of our soccer. We might not have as much possession as they have, but we should have enough possession to force them to defend for longer periods of time.”
DiCicco says that the USA must be able handle diverse types opponents.
“The women’s game in America is a pretty narrow demographic in how we play,” he says. “It’s combative, it’s athletic, it’s not incredibly sophisticated. Often, possession isn’t required. We need to understand how to play a team that bunkers and counterattacks.”
Next month, the USA will compete in its third world championship of the year, the U-20 World Cup in Papua New Guinea.
“We’re looking at failure in the Olympics [quarterfinal exit], although they did have some bad luck, and you need luck,” says DiCicco. “Failure in the U-17s -- and that puts a lot of pressure on Michelle French’s team, to at least get to the semifinals. I think all U.S. teams should get to the semifinals.”
Anson Dorrance, who recently celebrated his 800th win at the helm of the University of North Carolina, coached the USA to its first world title, victory at the inaugural 1991 Women’s World Cup in China.
He sees positives in the performance in Jordan in that Snow, in a tournament for players born on or after Jan. 1, 1999, gave to experience to younger players. The squad included five 2000s and four 2001s.
“My fear is division -- that there will be finger-pointing in different directions,” Dorrance said. “Finger-pointing at the federation, the federation player development leadership pointing fingers at the youth system. That’s not a healthy process and I don’t support any of it.
“This is an opportunity to see where we are at this age group and be self-critical. That’s the key phrase. To be self-critical -- for all of us who are involved in the game in the United States to think about how we could have made our run more successful.
“My fear is that people in powerful positions in U.S. youth soccer development are going to use this as a cudgel to create a world where they have more control. I think we’ve done a good job of developing kids across the country and I don’t think we need to start dictating systems of play and styles of play as a knee-jerk reaction whenever there’s any sort of failure.
Dorrance is concerned that U.S. Soccer launching a Girls Development Academy, which will ban players from playing high school ball, in 2017 is already creating divisions in the soccer community.
“My huge terror is [U.S. Soccer] doing things, which they’re already starting to do -- competing with the ECNL, which has been a very positive platform for girls development. …
“We have a fantastic forum at the annual NSCAA convention where U.S. Soccer leadership has an opportunity get ideas from all the extraordinary coaches at the youth level, the collegiate game, and now the professional level, and the extraordinary coaches coaching in U.S. Soccer. Have a forum to review where we are, and discuss how ideas can be implemented.
Dorrance says the most important message should be like the one from William Wallace in the movie “Braveheart” -- “Unite us!”
“Instead of claiming that all a sudden through some mysterious alchemy we can pick the perfect player development structure system across the United States, we should galvanize all the different elements,” Dorrance says.