Whose fault is it?
That is the question some U.S. national team fans are asking after the U.S. Under-20 national team's early exit from the Under-20 World Cup. Who is to blame for the failings of a collection of what is supposed to be the best Under-20 players this country can produce? Is it as simple as the pointing of a finger at head coach Thomas Rongen, or do the issues that plagued this team go far beyond a coach or his roster selection?
Rongen will face some heat, as he should, for a team that seemed to lack discipline as much as it appeared to lack talent. It is a thankless job coaching a youth national team in a country with few real opportunities for young players to get professional caliber experience, but Rongen was always going to be judged on results and he had to know that with every Korean goal came the increased likelihood that he will wind up paying for this early tournament exit with his job.
With that said, how much of it was Rongen's fault, and how much of it was the product of a weak Under-20 pool?
Rongen gets some blame for sticking with a 4-3-3 formation when he simply didn't have the players to make it work against disciplined teams. He also gets the expected blame for his roster selection because we all know when a team of chosen players fails, the players who weren't chosen were always the right ones. In this case though, Rongen will face even more heat for his selections after Bryan Arguez, a player who wasn't initially chosen but who came in as an injury replacement, wound up being one of the team's best players in the tournament.
Roster nitpicking takes attention away from one very fair question. Was this cycle of players good enough? Consider that the last U.S. Under-17 national team finished 1-3 at the 2007 Under-20 World Cup, advancing to the second round on goal difference after going 1-2 in group play just as this Under-20 team did (and that team's coach, John Hackworth, also paid with his job).
Yes, there were players missing, with Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu focusing on their club careers, but the same could be said for almost every other team in the tournament. A truly full-strength Under-20 World Cup wouldn't exactly favor the United States in this cycle, even with Altidore and Adu, not with teams from Italy to Brazil to England being able to call on established teenage pro standouts.
So why does this particular tournament exit hurt so much for some USA fans? The disappointment also stems from the fresh memories of the 2007 U.S. Under-20 team, a stacked team by USA standards that upset Brazil and gave so many signs of promise. Ultimately though, what may have been forgotten by some is that each team is its own entity, and you can't expect continued improvements in results from one youth team generation to the next.
That doesn't make the U.S. team's performance any easier to accept, particularly not when we consider the final group stage match against South Korea, an opponent that also featured college players but still managed to play like a cohesive, disciplined and skillful team. The losing wasn't the worst part for U.S. fans who took the time to watch this generation of American youngsters, it was the way they lost, by being thoroughly outplayed and looking lost, uncreative and undisciplined for stretches.
Those are the reasons why Rongen stands a good chance of paying for this performance with his job, but blame can certainly be pointed elsewhere. You can point to some untimely injuries, a tough group draw, and you can point to the closing down of the MLS reserve division, which limited playing time and development for key Under-20 players. The need for for top American teenagers to have an alternative to college for regular playing time is something that MLS needs to work on addressing, but that alone isn't why the USA came up so short this time around.
In the end, what we had was a pool of players that just wasn't as good as the previous group, and one that just wasn't equipped to do much in this tournament. We can delude ourselves into believing that a different coach, and a few different roster choices, would have meant a deep tournament run, but that is wishful thinking.
When we saw a disappointing Under-17 team struggle at the World Cup two years ago we should have known this was coming. Some different decisions might have made it less ugly, but we should at least consider the possibility that this U.S. Under-20 cycle simply wasn't good enough.
What did you think of the U.S. Under-20 team's performance at the Under-20 World Cup? Writing it off as a weak cycle, or do you see it as evidence of a worrisome trend?
Share your thoughts below.