Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By DAN KARELL
Of all the talents in the U.S. Youth National Team system, the brightest of the bunch may be in the Under-17 squad.
For the second time in two months, the U.S. Under-17 National Team took home a tournament title against European opposition. With a 3-0-1 record, the U.S. stormed through the Aegean Cup, defeating France, Norway, and finally hosts Turkey in the final.
The title was in no small part to the scoring ability of the U-17s, as the team finished the tournament with ten goals in four games. Forwards Joe Gallardo (Monterrey), Haji Wright (LA Galaxy), and attacking midfielder Christian Pulisic (PA Classics) pulled the strings of the U.S. attack and proved to be too much for their European opponents. The trio’s performances in Turkey even had U-17 head coach Richie Williams claiming that they could be some of the best in the world at their level.
“At this level, from the teams that we’ve played, they look like they can match up with anybody on the attacking side or even look better than the attacking players and teams we’ve competed against,” Williams told SBI in a phone interview. “We’re real happy for them and you can also see they’re developing in the six months we’ve been together (in residency and U-17 camps).”
Both Wright and Gallardo scored goals in the 2-1 win against Turkey in the final, with Wright and Pulisic each credited with an assist as well. Gallardo finished the tournament with a team-high three goals.
“They’re creating opportunities, they’re aggressive going forward, they go at defenders with speed, they’re good one on one, they’re good in combination play, and then the biggest thing is at any of these levels is when you create the opportunities being able to take those opportunities and score,” Williams said. “Joe, Haji, and Christian have done extremely well and we hope they continue that and continue to even get better and be able to perform down the line with the older national teams.”
After winning the Nike International Friendlies in December with an impressive 4-1 victory against Brazil, the U.S. picked up right from there in their first match of the Aegean Cup against France, who have regularly finished either first or second in the tournament during the last decade.
The U-17s surprised everyone and thanks to an early Gallardo goal and a last-minute penalty kick from Pulisic, were able to knock off France, 2-1. From that point on, Williams says he had a good feeling about how far the squad could go.
“After playing France in the first game and being able to play well and beat them, we felt very confident,” Williams said. “Then we went out against Norway and had another game and then even against Scotland we were able to advance to the final against a really good Turkey team.”
Perhaps even more impressive about this tournament victory is that the U.S. was missing a handful of starters from the fall and last December. Both Joshua Perez and Danny Barbir weren’t able to make the trip while Alejandro Zendejas was injured shortly before the tournament.
Even with the absences, players like Orrin McKinze Gaines and U.S. U-15 midfielder Nicholas Taitague stepped in and the U.S. didn’t miss a beat. The success of the team, according to Williams, shows the growth in depth across the country as soccer continues to develop.
“What we want is a very deep team,” Williams said. “We want to try to develop as many players as we can, give opportunities to as many players as we can to get that experience of playing in the Nike International Friendlies and going to tournaments like in Turkey and playing against very good teams.”