WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, December 27, 2006) -- In November, the United States under-20 men trained in south Florida for several days and played two matches -- one in public and one behind closed doors -- against their counterparts from Guatemala who will, coincidentally, be in their qualifying group for the upcoming Under-20 World Cup 2007.
The players in this under-20 age group are critically important to the development of the future of the U.S. senior national team, but this age group seems generally overlooked in the greater scheme of things. That's a shame, because many of the players on coach Thomas Rongen's roster should one day be the backbone of the U.S. men -- whether it be in 2010 or 2014.
The results of the two matches against Guatemala were the same, 2-1 victories for the U.S. At times, the matches displayed much more enthusiasm than skill, but both encounters were important because the team is preparing for qualifying in Panama January 17-21 where it will face Guatemala, Haiti and Panama in Group A.
The 24-nation world tournament will be held in Canada in July. The top two teams from each of six preliminary groups will advance to single-elimination phase, along with the four third-place teams with the best records.
With Rongen as head coach and Dave Dir as his assistant -- both veteran Major League Soccetr coaches -- the U.S. Soccer Federation dedicates quite a few resources to this team because its mission is to bridge the years between under-17 residency program and the senior team. The U-20 age group is where players start to develop as professionals and hopefully make a significant leap in skill and experience.
As Rongen is finding out, this is an extremely difficult group to coach because his players are spread across the globe at very different levels of play. Just gathering them all in one place at the same time to train and play friendly matches has proven next to impossible.
"Five of our potential starters play professionally in Europe," Rongen told SoccerTimes. "That's great from the point of view of their development, but their teams are very reluctant to release them to train with us and the first time we will see all five together will be five days before we play our first qualifier."
Another group of key U-20 players are performing in MLS -- many as starters who are important to their teams. So the same obstacle occurs -- the teams do not willingly release them to train with Rongen.
"This summer, when the Europeans were on break and available, the MLS players were not.," Rongen said. "Now, when the MLS season has ended, it is difficult to get the Europeans released."
One example of the depth of Rongen's problem is that he has struggled to even meet his two potential starting forwards in qualifying -- Johann Smith, who plays for Bolton Wanderers in England, and Josmer Altidore, who plies his trade for MLS's New York Red Bulls -- no less get them playing together.
The first meeting with the pair came in last month's camp after Rongen begged and managed to pry Smith loose from Bolton, However, Altidore had thumb surgery after the MLS season and could not play in Florida. At least he made the trip and was able to sit in on the training sessions and important off-field meetings, while also gaining a chance to bond with Smith, but establishing on-field chemistry is something that will have to wait until the first qualifying match in Panama.
Altidore was able to attend Rongen's final camp before qualifying, a 12-day affair which ended Saturday, but with the English Premier League in session, Bolton would not let Smith go. None of the five projected qualifying starters from overseas were available for the final camp. The U.S. defeated Canada 2-0 December 20 in the only international match of the camp
"That's the way it's going to be," Rongen said. "The first time I am going to have my starting 11 together for a match will be the first match of qualifying. They're all going to understand the system and what is expected of them, but they will have to knit quickly. But we'll be all right."
Rongen faces obstacles than just the logistical difficulty of gathering his whole squad in one place at the same time. The players he is counting on are all developing in disparate soccer environments.
"We have players like Johann and Michael (Bradley, who plays for Heneerveen in the Netherlands), who are training and playing in top-flight European organizations," Rongen said. "We have nine players now who are starting and training with top MLS clubs, but we have players who are competing at the college level in the U.S. and a couple who are just coming out of the (U-17) residency program in Bradenton (Fla.). Trying to meld these levels of experience is challenging."
Regretfully, the work Rongen and Dir are doing is not only difficult, but generally underappreciated. Still, it is critical to the continued growth of the U.S. men's program. Hopefully, the Americans will not have difficulty in advancing from the CONCACAF region and then will do well this summer in Canada.
Rongen hopes for a more satisfying result than in recent world championship tournaments. A top four finish would add luster to the U.S. program following its disappointing elimination in the Round of 16 two years ago in the championship tournament in the Netherlands. After winning Group D, which included eventual champion Argentina and Germany, with a 2-0-1 record, the U.S. wasted a 1-0 halftime lead and was eliminated by Italy 3-1 in the Round of 16.
Four years ago in the United Arab Emirates, the U.S. also won its preliminary group, but went out is crushing fashion in the quarterfinals. Leading 1-0, Argentina tied the game four minutes into stoppage time and won with a golden-goal penalty kick 10 minutes into overtime.
The 2001 world championship in Argentina ended for the Americans in the Round of 16 with a 2-0 setback to Egypt. Spain sent the U.S. packing 3-2 in the Round of 16 of the 1999 tournament in Nigeria.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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