USA U-17s learning the beautiful game, face big test against Italy today


US U-17s learning the beautiful game; Photo by CJ Noof

The next stage of development for US soccer is underway, but hardly anyone is paying attention. The US Under-17 national team takes the field today against Italy in the second round of the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria with a transformed philosophy: create and attack. New coach Wilmer Cabrera, brought on two years ago after a series of disappointing performances at this level, has focused on teaching these young American prospects how to play creative and attacking soccer. Whatever the result today, these American kids can play the beautiful game.

Americans at every level, but particularly among youth teams, often rely on superior athleticism to hit teams on the counter attack. It has worked reasonably well, to a point, but speed and power only gets you so far against skill and precision. In 1999, the U-17s with budding stars like Landon Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley finished 4th and some of those players form the core of the current senior squad – with Oguchi Onyewu also on that team.

But success at youth level has never been a particularly strong predictor of either great players or teams as the kids get older. The main reason is that in a lot of these matches, the overall skill level through the squads is lower, elevating the significance of general athletic attributes. In the professional ranks, it is much harder to simply rely on great speed to win games.

Up to now, U.S. teams have attained consistent moderate success at youth level, but struggled to push on to the next level in the senior competitions. Cabrera is trying to change that by building on the strong athletic base prevalent in the American system, but adding the skill and precision necessary to break though against the world’s best teams. And you can see the results watching this U-17 squad play.

Even without top prospect Charles Renken, still recovering from knee surgery, the U.S. team boasts some very promising young players that are fast and strong, but importantly, also creators. Louis Gil, who is drawing the attention of Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger, runs the midfield. Stefan Jerome is a pacey striker with the skill to beat defenders on his own. Just watching this team play – as they do at 10am Eastern today  – you can see that they understand the importance of possession to success in international tournaments and these players appreciate proper spacing and movement without the ball.

Brent Latham, whose coverage of the team and tournament is invaluable, writes for EPSN that the matchup with the Italians sets up well for this American team. The mostly professional Italian team sits deep with a solid defense, cedes possession, and looks to hit teams on the counter. That’s what American teams used to do. But this incarnation will gladly accept more possession and the invitation to create chances and break down the stubborn resistance of the Italians.

The matchup against Italy is a great test for the new philosophy of this young squad. Of course, winning is good for any program. But I will gladly trade some wins at youth level based on attributes that rarely indicate success in the future for a system that prioritizes the skills necessary to consistently progress deep into the international tournaments that matter most.


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