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TGIF: On the U.S. Under-17 team’s unmet expectations

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The U.S. Under-17 national team won a World Cup game on Thursday, but for many American observers, the 1-0 victory against Malawi didn't quite feel like a triumph. The disappointing performance led to some criticism (from SBI among others), and while it might seem misguided to be critical of a team of teenagers, the fact remains that this U-17 squad isn't just some youth team. It is a team being used as a barometer to measure just how bright (or dim) the future of U.S. Soccer is.

Sounds a bit heavy, doesn't it? The fate of a national team program resting on the still developing shoulders of kids who haven't attended their proms yet? It isn't quite that serious, but this Under-17 team does carry the responsibility of showing American fans that progress is being made, that the resources being funneled into U.S. soccer's youth development program aren't being wasted.

The U.S. Under-17 residency program has helped produce some of U.S. Soccer's brightest stars, but two years after an Under-17 World Cup failure, this new installment doesn't look anything like the standout squad we were hearing for so long it would be.

Yes, we've come to that point in American soccer when a youth national team can carry the burden of expectations.

That is what happens with exposure and with more attention being paid to the sport and national team programs. Consider that there are probably more American soccer fans who have heard about Charlie Renken, Earl Edwards and Jack McInerney than have heard about a good number of MLS players. Why is this the case? It is the case because American soccer fans are always looking for the next star, the next player or players to believe in, the generation of standouts who will help the United States rise to the level of the elite. How else can you explain some U.S. national team fans already projecting Under-17 left back Tyler Polak as a future senior national team player based on a few good youth World Cup performances? 

The success of American youth national teams isn't so much about results as it is about showing us that the United States' best young players are getting better and the pipeline is stocked as current stars like Landon Donovan and Tim Howard move toward the inevitable twilights of their careers. It is about a team wearing the USA shield playing some attractive soccer and giving us hope. We saw it in 2007 with the Under-20 national team (featuring the likes of Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley), and we saw it in 2003 with the Under-17 national team (featuring Freddy Adu, Eddie Gaven and Danny Szetela).

No, those youth team flashes of brilliance don't always translate into national team glory, but this country is hungry for evidence of progress. The current Under-17 World Cup team has the unlucky task of following up the Under-20 World Cup team's putrid performance, as well as the disappointment of the 2007 Under-17 team (which finished 1-3). The current team actually showed some good skill in its opening 2-1 loss to Spain, but missed chances and a blown lead vs. Spain, coupled with subsequent flat effort against Malawi (which the U.S. team won courtesy of an awful goalkeeping blunder by Malawi), suddenly have the U-17s heading into Sunday's group finale vs. the UAE needing its strongest performance of the tournament.

Perhaps this team is doomed to fall short of expectations. When standouts Charlie Renken, Joseph Gyau and Sebastian Lletget either pass on or were passed up for this team, any thoughts of real tournament glory should have disappeared. This team doesn't need a medal to be successful though. It needs to play some quality soccer, create chances, show more skill and less fear.

If this Under-17 team can show that it is better than it has shown in its first two matches, and win on Sunday, it could still wind up making this Under-17 World Cup a memorable one for USA fans, and make thoughts of the long-term future of American soccer just a bit more promising. If the U.S. team falls flat, then fans looking for signs of progress will be forced to wait even longer to see them.


  1. I guess I’m reading complaints about both. don’t skills and results seem connected? Or, is that an oversimplification? I mean, for the US, by the way. We’re having difficulty scoring. that seems to indicate a lack of skill at finishing.

    Brazil did not play with any sense of coherence, and when they managed to get the ball in a dangerous spot, Switz. came up with some great plays to deny them. It wasn’t so much the Switz. goalie as it was the backs deflecting and clearing shots. But Brazil seemed very skilled with the ball at each player’s feet; they just couldnt find each other, and didn’t even seem to know where to look. Is that a skill or something else?

  2. Did anyone say Brazil players lacked basic skills and technique? Most here are commenting on the USA’s poor skills, not their results.

  3. Dempsey, Davies, Feilhaber, Bornstein and many others did spend time in college and while you can make a good case that their soccer might have dropped off a bit because of it, it did not seem to hurt too much, and without college perhaps only Dempsey would be a name we know. I think of this group, only Dempsey got national attention at 17, Fielhaber was a walk-on at UCLA and Bornstein was lightly recruited if recruited at all.
    The point is these became talented players because they wanted to. If you can find a way to light that passion in kids, the “system” will not matter so much. I hope right now there is a kid who, like Michael Jordon, is spending way too much time practicing.

    I’ve been involved in youth soccer at the local level for over 20 years and it is an ongoing struggle to reach kids whose parents cannot afford fees or get rides to games or practices. Scholarships will help only the fraction who are clued in and whose parents’ pride will permit it. The movement towards professional coaches for nearly all youth teams has raised fees and taken away the one chauffeur with a motive, the parent coach who often used is the one with the van who picked up 3 or 4 kids with missing or single parents 3 or 4 times a week. The pro coaches generally will not (and often cannot) do that. I am afraid the problem of helping disadvantaged kids is getting worse rather than better.

  4. Wait… So you’re implying that Guillermo

    Ochoa may not be one of the best goalkeepers in the world?! But he appears in commercials!!!!!

  5. Just to remind those who might think the 3 training with european clubs were identified as the best that they probably are the best only among those who happen to have dual citizenship or a parental relationship with a european country. Until they turn 18, most of the players cannot sign with a european club. I have no idea how many of the present crop of U17s are eligible for a european team, but I bet is not many.

  6. @Tom

    “First off…I think this has been some of the best discussion i’ve seen on this site…discussions rather than one sentence jabs (which I do to).”

    I agree. I have read every comment on this topic. There are some good ones and thoughtful ones.

    My take is as follows:

    1. Politics does play a part in the current system of player selection.

    2. Players do develop differently. What you see at U17 today, is not what you will see at 21. As a buddy of mine says, age 18 is the great leveller.

    3. Sports in general are generational. We have a couple generations of kids playing the game now.

    4. The current “pay to play” system is broken. We really need to find another way of getting kids into the game. Working closely with school systems to include all kids would be a start.
    -The current economy is putting a stress on this system.

    5. I agree that MLS clubs need to take the lead in player development. Again, the current system is broken.

    6. Player development is not about winning and losing. It is about making kids the best players that can work in a system of play.

    Great…great discussion.

  7. Great article.

    Gil, Gyau (spelling), McInerney, Edwards, Renken. These players will ply their trade in Europe in the future at some point. We just need to allow these KIDS to grow up at their own pace. Don’t forget Luis Gil is still the youngest player on the U-17 team and has a looooooooong way to go until he reaches his potential.

    The youth system is doing things to help develop these youngsters. With the increasing pressure from the media and fans, it will only get better. I feel there is still a gap when kids get into their later teens and into college. The gap lies between outstanding high school talent, and the pros. We also need to get kids into playing the game for the love of it and get rid of huge tournaments that cost lots of money. Too many impoverished kids are being left out.

  8. Luis Gil looks like he has a future with US Soccer…as long as they dont blow him out like they did with freddy adu I think he will be a future player for the national team,even if it isnt until he is 22-23,it will be worth the wait.

  9. Sorry I meant to say race and/or ethnicity although heritage might be included because the practice of soccer its passed down by tradition.

    But going back to my point latin players dont have the skill just because they are latins they have it because they love it. If you dont believme look to 2nd or 3rd generation latinos and compare their skills with newcomers or 1st generations. Once latinos incorporate into society they stop playing soccer. Of course, there might be exceptions.

  10. “the reasons these Latinos have those skills is not because of their heritage, it is because they grow up playing soccer and they love it. ” …..I have to say you don’t know what the definition of heritage is….the definition is “practices that are handed down from the past by tradition;”…….and growing up playing soccer is based on it being passed down by generations! Come on. We all know this.

    Latin players in general are very good with the ball at their feet…good touch..good control…that’s where it all begins.

  11. “I know ESPN has done the “Where are they now” editions of several U20 and U17 teams and I didn’t count, but it seems like only 2-4 of the players from each team are really contributing to the Men’s National team. So obviously, we need to look strictly at the individual talent with the pool of U17 players, because I would not be surprised the likes of Shinksy playing in college, then MLS then vanishing.”

    This is what history shows, not only for the US, but other countries youth program.

  12. I agree with what you are saying.

    This same conversation took place on the Hungarian boards about their u20 team. How many of their kids will make it to the senior team? Well if history is the judge, not many. Of the u17 Mexicans that won in Peru, how many have made it to the 1st team? 2? Vela and Dos Santos. Are they starting at their clubs?

    The reality is, you may only get 2 kids off this team because that is how the numbers usually play out in academy teams. Only a small portion of the kids will make it to Europe with a number being average in MLS.

    (That being said, I did like the 2 Polish kids on our team. Poliachuk (sp?) showed some very good skill with pressure. I think Zavaleta is going to be a player. I liked the decisions he was making out of the back.

  13. Many here often acknowledge that Latinos have generally great skills and hope for these Latinos to be incorporated into the youth systems. I personally don’t think that is a solution; the reasons these Latinos have those skills is not because of their heritage, it is because they grow up playing soccer and they love it.

    Unless Americans start feeling passion for the game since they are born, we will always have this problem. I am sure every so often a very talented player will be produced but it won’t be enough to even become a feared team.

  14. I’ll echo your statement do americans lift weights other than Jozy and Gooch? Some of the biggest offenders: clark, bradley, landon, feilhaber. I’m sorry but if your small like that you best have skills like messi or yuo’ll be eaten alive by the likes of gerrard and ballack

  15. Ives I still think it is a neccessity but I wouldn’t go so far as to say look at what the residency program produced. Guys like bradley trained with his father for years and then went to brandenton and then had to go make it in Europe. I like the players that are skipping out and just trying to go to europe.

  16. Very much on topic – goes to the unpredictability of U17’s. Brazil finished 3rd in their group, will need to be very lucky to make the next round. Must be the end of quality teams out of Brazil, etc, etc… Switzerland wins their group easily, indicating that the era of Swiss dominance of world soccer is coming…Or not.

  17. Thank you someone else see this. We still have a program in the states that rich kids get noticed because they’re at the big clubs and stuff. Charlie davies on the other hand plays hard through college. goes to northern Europe and then blam wow’s us all at the confed cup out of nowhere. No one was hyping this kid but he went out and worked his tail off. I even remember seeing the roster from Gooch and Landons days at the U-17. Not many of them made it into professional soccer let alone the Nats. Lets keep looking for the Charlie’s and leave the Adu’s behind

  18. First off…I think this has been some of the best discussion i’ve seen on this site…discussions rather than one sentence jabs (which I do to).

    The point I wanted to make: Can’t we also assess and say that we have three U17 players that are training with European clubs and acknowledge that as a success of the program. How many players turned down the 1999 tourney because they wanted to stay in Europe? It would be great to see this team do better but I will also say I’m glad that there are three youth training in Europe and several more likely to join soon.

  19. Unfortunately, it’s question of numbers. The US has ample talent but only 30-40 players are given access to elite training. If you look at the Arsenal youth system, not every player turns out to be a future star. And in the US, if you look at the Duke basketball team, not everyone is the future of the NBA. As long as there are limited development possibilities, we will continue to fail to produce top qualities. The lack of opportunity is no ones fault in particulur as youth development in the US is in the beginning stages by international standards. As MLS academies continue to grow we will begin to see a decrease in the dependence on Bradenton for MNT players.


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