This year, for the first time in my life, I watched the United States perform in an U-20 World Cup. I watched every minute of every match the lads played, and enjoyed much of it. I learned a considerable amount about the state of our game vis-a-vis the rest of the world at this age group. Here’s some thoughts.
This is the first time I’ve ever seen American soccer players in a competition where they were not the fittest and most disciplined players on display. Fitness, discipline, and a total commitment to the team is the trio that was immortalized by Sir Alex Ferguson as “that American thing.” With the exception of our match against New Zealand, this was not this case. If our players were remarkable in this, it’s certainly not down to any of them. What it IS down to is our system of player development in this country.
In countries like Ukraine, Germany, Serbia, and Colombia, players attach themselves to professional clubs at very early ages. They play competitively while still young. In Europe, everyone does this, but it is especially in the “smaller” countries, where players in their late teens and early 20s are most apt to be playing regularly in professional leagues. The Ukranian and Serbian teams were filled with players who play on first team squads in the lower divisions of their professional systems. Of the players in the US squad, only Rubio Rubin is first choice in a professional league, and – and I might be wrong here – only Bradford Jamieson and Emerson Hyndman have contributed to their clubs while playing significant minutes. It should be no surprise that those three players, along with three or four others, displayed the kind of fitness that their opponents [other than New Zealand] displayed.
For other American players who are tied to MLS clubs, or clubs in the Mexican, English, or German leagues, most of their match work is in scrimmages or short appearances in cup matches. It became obvious also that these players are not high enough up the hierarchy to work on ALL their skills. For this reason, we fielded flair players without discipline or vision, and hard workers without remarkable technical skills. Only players who have heavy doses of both are going to make a professional career at any level in any country. I wonder, also, if we and New Zealand [again] were the only countries who fielded amateurs at this level?
How can we produce professional footballers in their teens with significant experience as well as training that emphasizes fitness, discipline, and skill? One thing that’s been rolling around in my head since the Ukraine match is that I’d like to see at least two MLS minor leagues – staffed with established professionals and kids right out of college or high school. The main MLS clubs can start their high draft choices there and give them 90 minutes each week rather than 15 minutes every three weeks. With each MLS club providing a team concept throughout the three levels, a player “making it to the majors” will be more ready for prime time, and those still working their way up the ladder will be forged in the crucible of meaningful matches and league tables. Also, clubs will be able to identify those who will never make the big club.
Yes, it’s hard to put something like this together. I think it will take the amalgamation of the MLS with USL 1&2 and the NASL. I’d be happy with San Antonio as the top level farm club for one of the MLS sides. Will it happen? I don’t know. Since the league began, I have yet to see a coherent “long view” from the halls of MLS ivy. I have a sneaking suspicion that JK would love that sort of scheme.
And now to the games. I saw a sustained level of toughness from our kids. There were a couple who routinely infuriated me, but several who I think have a bright future in the game. Paul Arriola is strong and has a tireless motor. Tommy Thompson may be starting in the MLS before his 21st birthday. Matt Miazga and Joel Soñora show a lot of promise. Here’s the list, in order, of players who impressed me most:
1. Rubio Rubin – He’s a hard worker with a good eye for the pass and he’s greedy in front of goal. It’s a shame that he was so often up there by himself. I’d like to have a word with Tab about that. Yes, he’s small, but he’s very strong. I think he has a bright future and was, in my opinion, clearly the best American on display.
2. Cameron Carter-Vickers – I had never heard of this guy, but boy can he play. When I found out in the Serbia match that he was only 17, I was stunned. I think if I were Spurs, I’d be considering turning him into a defensive mid. He’s got two good feet to match his heading, and there wasn’t a striker he faced that bettered him for speed or strength.
3. Zack Steffen – When they name the “Best XI,” I expect him to be the keeper. While his penalty saves were remarkable, it was his decisiveness that really caught my eye. He has great footwork and positioning. His distribution needs work, but – please don’t shoot the piano player – he already looks a better keeper than Bettinelli.
4. Emerson Hyndman – After the New Zealand match, the word was out: shut down number 8 and the Americans are weaker. EVERY team we faced put him in a straight jacket, but he still found 8-10 minutes a match to break through and influence the game. He’s very decisive on the fast break and has a good shot. I’d like to see him replace Parker for Fulham this season. We’ll see.
5. Bradford Jamieson – If he doesn’t get injured, I think we’re still playing. He’s fast and strong and committed. The Galaxy have a fine player here, and he was just what we needed as an attacking partner for Rubin. When he came on as a sub in our first match, things changed dramatically for the good, and when he left the pitch injured, Rubin never had a reliable attacking partner.
Who disappointed? Well, it’s hard to level too many brickbats at players who had poor matches. As long as Rubin was up front by himself and Hyndman was shackled, we were always going to struggle to stay in matches. The fact that we nearly got to the semis is testimony to the entire playing squad, but … . The player I was MOST looking forward to seeing was the player who frustrated me most. This entire past season, I heard and read about Gedion Zelalem, the attacking midfielder who is in Arsenal’s youth squad. Man did he drive me crazy. When we were counter attacking, he was the guy most likely to hose it up. How? Mostly by making the best pass one or two seconds too late. The guy he was passing to would have to backtrack to get the ball, or a defender would intercept. He got his head up in time to see what was happening, but his reactions were much too slow. He also seemed to be easily manhandled at times. This was especially maddening, because there were other times that he was aggressive and hard to dispossess. Yes, he has flair, but all too often all I could think of was Freddy Adu.
Over all, though, I enjoyed watching the lads, and I’m looking forward to seeing some of them feature more over the coming 18 months.