There’s nothing positive about being eliminated from a World Cup. It’s a bitter feeling, and it’s one the U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team experienced on Saturday.
In the moment and in the present, World Cup elimination is a setback. However, following a run that saw the U.S. play dominant attacking soccer in spurts, there is plenty of reason for optimism for a U-17 group that provided a little bit of hope following one of the darkest periods in American soccer history.
The U.S. U-17s’ World Cup dream ended at the hands of a vicious England team in a 4-1 loss on Saturday. It was certainly a frustrating performance given everything the U.S. displayed in their five-game run in India. But John Hackworth isn’t trying to let the result distract from a big tournament or the fact that, at the youth level, there’s as much to be gained from every misstep as every success.
“I told the team in the locker room that the one thing that they could do for our staff, who put so much time and energy into their development, is to just make sure this is not the highlight of their careers, that they have many more moments like this and reach deeper into World Cups in the future,” Hackworth said. “That’s what, in my opinion, would be the most gratifying thing about all of this.
“(They have to) have the courage to push to be great. That’s really hard for players because it’s a risk. You put yourself out there. You’re going to do something that is special and there are sacrifices you have to make and hours you have to put into that and lifestyle changes that you have to make, but that’s what this group of players signed up for. That’s what’s been invested in them. Now, they need to make sure to push themselves in the years to come to reach their greatest potential.”
Hackworth hopes the early signs of that potential could lead the team to an even deeper U-17 World Cup run, but the U.S. ran into an English juggernaut on Saturday.
From the opening whistle, England came out hot, scoring two rapid goals to put the U.S. in an early hole. Hackworth said it was always going to be a battle, but England’s fast start was a major lesson to the U.S. group. They came out a step slow, and they were punished for it.
Still, the U.S. pushed, creating several chances. Josh Sargent hit the crossbar. Andrew Carleton pulled a few shots wide. Timothy Weah and Ayo Akinola were active. England goalkepeer Curtis Anderson made some big saves, keeping the U.S. off the board.
Eventually, the U.S. gifted England a third, rendering Sargent’s second half finish as little more than a consolation in a frustrating defeat.
“We didn’t come out the way we wanted to,” Sargent said. “It was a bad start and they had two early goals. We had our chances but, unfortunately, we couldn’t capitalize on them. It was just a bad start to the game.
“Any time you lose, especially in the fashion that we did, it’s an opportunity to learn from it,” Hackworth added. “Nothing is ever achieved at the level that we want to without some setbacks, so I believe that these young men have to face what happened (Saturday), own up to it, reflect on the moment and come back even stronger and make sure, everything that they can learn from it, they do.”
Those lessons, in theory, could lead to a brighter future for the U.S. Men’s National Team. Both the U-17s and U-20s reached their respective World Cup quarterfinals, joining England as the only nation to push two teams so deep in this year’s youth tournaments. It’s a clear sign that there is some talent brewing within the U.S. system, but now that talent needs to manifest itself and push on and up through the different age groups.
Despite all of the frustration and emotion, Hackworth says this year was a “fantastic achievement” at the youth level for the U-17 and U-20 programs, one that should someday help the senior team rebound from what was certainly a bittersweet 2017.
“I think we displayed that we have a lot of good qualities and that this group can do a lot of big things in the future,” Hackworth said. “I think there were a lot of positives that this group can take away, but it’s still awful hard.”
“I’m hoping all of these guys can meet up again at a camp,” said Sargent, who now prepares to join Bundesliga side Werder Bremen. “Whether it’s 18s or 20s or the full team, I’m sure I’ll see these guys again soon.”