Photo by John Dorton/ISIPhotos.com
By DAN KARELL
After losing their opening match to Portugal, it seemed very unlikely that the U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team would go on to win the 2013 Nike International Friendlies in the manner that they did.
To the surprise of many, the U.S. rebounded from defeat to put in two straight dominant performances against England and Brazil, scoring a combined nine goals in the two games. One person who wasn’t surprised with the team’s turnaround and performance in the Nike Friendlies was head coach Richie Williams, who had seen signs of it last August at the Copa Mexico de Naciones youth tournament, where the U.S. played national teams from Uruguay, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Paraguay, among others.
“We thought this (U-17) group was a little bit special, with no disrespect to the last group,” Williams told SBI in a phone interview. “We went to Mexico in August to a very good tournament with six CONMEBOL teams and six CONCACAF teams and we actually came in third in the tournament. We were unlucky not to get into the final and we knew we had a good, talented group.
“But the other part (that separates this group from others) is that they are also very competitive, they have drive, they push each other, which is great because you need that in the group. It can’t always just be the coaches. They’re focused on their game.”
This current crop of U.S. U-17 players differs from previous groups for another reason as well. On the Nike Friendlies squad, exactly half of the 20-man squad currently play in a professional team’s academy, with half of those ten having played or spent time in Major League Soccer academies.
The difference in talent and skill was easy to see during the week-long tournament as players like Haji Wright (LA Galaxy), Joshua Perez (Fiorentina, Joe Gallardo (Monterrey), Luca de la Torre (Fulham), and Danny Barbir (Manchester City) all produced quality performances.
Williams hopes that it’s a sign of things to come as the development of soccer players in the United States continues to catch up with the rest of the world.
“The first thing you recognize when you have four or five players who, even before the cycle starts, are already playing with foreign clubs, they have some sort of talent,” Williams said. “In the last cycle we didn’t really have anybody like that. So right off the bat you know you have players that are talented because they’re getting identified at an early age.
“You definitely have some talented kids and it helps when they’re playing at good academies and they’re getting international competition week in and week out and their environments are good environments for them to develop. It’s really good to see. You have to think that we’re making strides in developing players and the development process is getting better in the United States. Even though we still probably have a long way to go, it’s definitely getting better each year.”
Up next for the U.S. U-17s is the IMG Cup at their home in Bradenton, Fla. starting on Wednesday. The U.S. is scheduled to face domestic side Alliance Academy before matches against the youth sides of Tottenham and Stevenage of England and Querétaro of Mexico.