The US Under-20 World Cup team looked solid today en route to their 4-1 victory over Cameroon. Just a few days earlier, they looked extremely shaky losing to Germany 3-0. With youth teams, you can always cover yourself with the cliche: they’re young and inconsistent, blah-blah-blah. But Coach Thomas Rongen’s latest squad is even stranger than most. In the last cycle we had a group of heralded players headlined by Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu, and Michael Bradley. This time we have Dilly Duka, Ike Opara, and Brek Shea – a group familiar to only the hardest of the hardcore US Soccer fans. The team includes a fair amount of college players, some guys from Europe, and some guys playing in PDL and USL-1. Not many guys from MLS (even fewer who actually play). It’s a very random-looking team. What does this say about the state of USA soccer development? Not much, unfortunately.
It’s a Catch-22 with American players getting lost in the shuffle. MLS teams would rather pay more for foreigners with pedigrees than develop the home talent, and since the Reserve-lead closed down last year, and with entry-level salaries so ridiculously low, staying in college has seemed reasonable for guys like Duka, and keeper Brian Perk. The young guys find it difficult to head for Europe unless they can secure a European passport, which eliminates many. That’s why you have guys like Tony Taylor and Gale Agbossoumonde who play in USL-1 (the USA second division). It all adds up to us being behind the countries with more established leagues – this despite many promises by US Soccer, MLS, Nike, and now Adidas. Take, for example, Germany. Their U20s are mostly signed to Bundesliga clubs. They train with the senior team and play reserve matches in the German Third Division, or go out on loans to Second Division teams, etc. This means they’re playing in competitive games. Unlike the guys warming the bench in MLS or playing NCAA soccer, with all it’s weird rules and questionable coaching. No wonder we looked disjointed and inept in the opener.And yet it looks like w have some players. Brian Arguez (on the books for Hertha Berlin in Germany), Mikkel Diskerud (grew up in Norway but has American heritage), and Jared Jeffrey look skillful in the midfield. It’s no coincidence that these three have been training in Europe the past several years. Duka, Jorge Flores, and Taylor look tough. So do Brian Arguez and Agbossoumounde. But only a couple of these guys look like future senior nationals: Shea, Opara, and maybe right back Sheanon Williams. Then again, Freddy was supposed to the can’t miss guy from the last group (and he’s technically still a U20).
Depth is definitely an issue, and some of the college choices seem downright mystifying – especially when you consider guys like Alex Nimo who aren’t on the roster. And yet the team looked strong and skillful for stretches against Cameroon. Now that Rongen has inserted the more talented players (why he didn’t start Arguez and Duka against Germany…), our boys look secure in the traditional defend-and-counter mindset. All we really need is a tie against Korea on Friday and it’s on to the knockout round. As the cliche-meisters will tell us, anything can happen there.
Still, the make-up and lack of competitive seasoning on this team is readily apparent. Even if the boys should catch fire and make the semi-finals, you can see how the whole development system is in dire need of leadership and change. Until US Soccer gets some new blood at the helm, until MLS takes development seriously (and scuttles some of their rules that almost penalize teams that do develop players), we will continue to see talent go untapped.