Post mortem

Where did it go wrong for the 2019 U-17 team and what is next?

The U.S. U-17 team's performance at the 2019 was shockingly poor and there are plenty of reasons why. While it's too early to ring alarm bells, serious questions should be asked about what went wrong in Brazil. ASN's Brian Sciaretta takes a final look at the team.

BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
November 04, 2019
12:00 AM
THE UNITED STATES U-17 national team crashed out of the U-17 World Cup after a brutal 4-0 loss at the hands of the Netherlands. That loss saw the U.S. team finish last in Group D with one point and just a single goal scored across three games, with eight conceded.

It was one of the worst performances from a U.S. team at a youth World Cup in recent memory and with the failure, it is important to ask questions as to where it went wrong with this group.

Don’t ring alarm bells, just yet

Unlike the U-20 World Cup which typically focuses on players over two birth years, the U-17 World Cup tends to focus heavily on a single birth year. In this case, it was the 2002 class.

The major generational gap that still continues to plague the U.S. team (players born in 1990-1994 and 1996) was a slow-moving problem that everyone should have seen coming. The youth national team results from those eras produced poor results – and now when these players are in their prime years, the U.S. team is, not surprisingly, at a low point.

The 2007 U-17 team, the 2009 U-17 team, the 2011 U-17 team, the 2009 U-20 team, the 2011 U-20 team, the 2013 U-20 team, the 2012 U-23 team, and the 2016 U-23 team were all bad and generated little full national team talent. Those teams comprise the “Missing Years.”

The reality, however, is that prior to this U-17 team, U.S. youth teams have been performing well. The last three U-20 teams and the 2017 U-17 team were solid. The 2015 U-17 team did not advance but still produced high-end talent with Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams.

One failed youth national team doesn’t necessarily signal that there is a massive problem – by itself. If the next U-20 team, or the next U-17 team struggle as well, there should be a major concern over another development gap, which as wel know can be quite painful for a program.

There are always going to be good birth years and bad birth years. The key is, of course, to have more good years than bad years but also to really avoid consecutive bad birth years.

It’s unlikely that the 2002 birth year is going to turn out to be a good one for U.S. Soccer based on this U-17 World Cup. Sure, there might be some players that surprise and emerge later but expectations should be dialed back.

What went wrong

This team played poorly and crashed out due to many different factors. Yes, there was less overall talent than the 2017 U-20 team but in the past there were American teams that performed much better despite not having nearly as much talent as the opponents.

This team lacked grit, hustle, and the players were robotic in their approach. They were not sharp in winning 50-50 balls. Specifically, their counter attacks were abysmal. Time after time, promising counter attacks fell apart well before a scoring chance could be generated. Some of it was basic mistakes – missing an open runner, not passing quick enough, or not moving effectively into open space.

There was also the confusing system that Wicky utilized that mirrored the way the full national team plays – also unsuccessfully, so far. It begs the obvious question that unless these players are playing this system for their clubs, does this indirect play make sense at the national team level?

Two decades ago, the goal was to make American players better on the technical side. U.S. teams at the time regularly outworked opponents and were full of heart. The idea was that better technical fundamentals would complete the equation of having the U.S. team compete a higher level.
The U.S. teams are better technically than they were 20 years ago, but this team lacked many of the strengths of those previous U.S. teams many years ago. It lost due to many of the non-technical, but still very important, aspects.

Part of that is the coaching. Tab Ramos had a lot of success with the U.S. U-20 teams because his teams played extremely hard. Yes, he had many good players but he kept the strengths of the U.S. teams from when he was player. That is how his U.S. teams were able to beat teams like France and Colombia in knockout games.

Raphael Wicky has a very good resume for the U-17 level and he was put in a tough situation only taking the job in March. But this performance does not reflect well on him. If he is going to continue with U.S. Soccer, what lessons will he learn?

Tab Ramos had a poor start to his strong run with the United States after the 2013 U-20 World Cup. Will Wicky follow suit? It will be a big test for him.

As for the DA, it must also question this group of players and where it went wrong? The DA is better funded now, but are the right lessons being taught? Are the right coaches in place?

Looking to the 2021 U-20 team

The next step for many of these players will be the 2021 U-20 cycle. This is where separation tends to occur and some of the U-17 players from this cycle don’t make it. Right now, expect larger share of these U-17 players to struggle to make the jump.

Among the strong 2017 U-17 team, six players made the jump to the 2019 U-20 World Cup team (Dest, Durkin, Dos Santos, Akinola, Weah, and Gloster) while two more would have made it if not for other factors (Lindsey was hurt and Sargent had senior team conflicts). Three of those players are age-eligible for the 2021 U-20 team (Vassilev, Reynolds, and Booth).

It’s hard to see this 2019 U-17 team pushing as many players up to the 2021 U-20 team as the previous U-17 team did.

The next U-20 team will likely have to be built on the older 2001 birth year as opposed to the 2002 birth year which made up all but two of the current U-17 team (Pepi and Leyva being the lone 2003-born players from this U-17 team and both those players are eligible for the 2023 U-20 team).

If the World Cup didn’t provide enough pressure, the pressure is now even more intense on these U-17 players to prove the World Cup was a blip, as opposed to something more revealing.

The 2001 birth year is pretty good so the 2002 players will have fewer spots on the upcoming U-20 cycle and perhaps different prospects from this birth-year will be given looks. Now with their clubs, did the World Cup provide a wake-up call that they must be better in order to transition to the professional level? We will see. But it’s not a great starting point.

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