Analysis: U.S. under-17 men
U.S. teen-agers on the verge of something special.By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service
Half a world away, the United States is on the verge of the greatest achievement in its history in men's soccer, albeit on the youth side. The under-17 team, riding a 24-game undefeated streak, is in the semifinals of the 1999 World FIFA Championship, and is favored Tuesday night against Australia in Christchurch.
Coach John Ellinger isn't going to delve deeply into whether or not this remarkable group is the first installment of the much-heralded Project 2010, the massive U.S. Soccer effort - with considerable financial backing from Nike - to be competitive in the 2010 World Cup, but he does feel the year-long residency camp and ambitous international match schedule has played a key role in the Americans' success.
"This is an extremely talented group that works hard and has been focused the last two years on this goal," he said Monday in a teleconference call. The core of 13-15 players has been together from the outset. The training environment (at Bollettieri Sports Academy in Bradenton, Fla.) has helped accelerate the development."
Does this mean that succeeding under-17 teams, presented with the same opportunities, might be as successful?
Many feel the United States needs to have elite players in the 14-17 age level being properly selected and getting intensive training throughout the nation, as is contemplated under Project 2010, before it can compete regularly with world soccer powers.
Maybe this team, which has rallied three times after yielding the first goal, is just special.
It has a world-class striker in Landon Donovan who has come up big in the clutch, a brilliant attacking midfielder in DaMarcus Beasley and a strong defense led by Oguchi Onyewu, Alexander Yi, and Nelson Akwari.
"We've stayed organized, and we seem to play better as each game goes on," Ellinger said. "We're patient on attack, probing one side then the other, not forcing opportunities. This team accepts new challenges and rises to the level needed. They've grown a little each game, both as a team and as individuals. They don't want to be denied."
The United States has had its share of breaks - rallying to beat New Zealand, 2-1, in the opener after the hosts had a player ejected early in the second half, scoring late to earn a 1-1 tie against Poland, and winning Group A with a 1-0 conquest of Uruguay. The Americans gave up an early goal in the quarterfinals to Mexico, but goalkeeper D.J. Countess dove to his left to stop Ricardo Sanchez' penalty kick - giving the Americans a spark. They scored two goals in the first half, and went on to win, 3-2.
The other semifinal pits perennial under-17 power Ghana against Brazil, the 1995 champion.
The best a U.S. men's team has ever done is the fourth place earned by the under-20 team in 1989, led by Kasey Keller, and also including Mike Burns, Troy Dayak, Chris Henderson, Dario Brose and Cam Rust.
The 1991 under-17 team, paced by Matt McKeon, placed fifth in Italy. Australia is in the semifinals for the first time, after four straight quarterfinal ousters.
"They are very fit, hard-working, and play direct," Ellinger said after viewing the 1-0 second-round victory against Qatar - following the first round play that opened with a 2-1 loss to Brazil, following by wins 2-1 against Germany and 1-0 against Mali.
"They are similar to New Zealand, but more technical, more creative. They
don't give away a lot in the back."
Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at
Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.