Another international tournament for the United States Men's National Team program and yet another disappointing result. The U.S. U-17 team went 3-and-out at the 2015 U-17 World Cup in Chile extending a miserable calendar year for the whole setup. While there's no sugar coating to spread over the terrible string of results at almost every level, this specific team isn't a completely lost cause.
In 2013, the U.S. didn't even qualify for the U-17 World Cup. While the 2015 team sneaked into the tournament via a penalty shootout in the CONCACAF Championships, it's qualification should be seen as an improvement already. One point in three games cannot be spun in a positive light, no matter how optimistic you may be. Excuses will include being grouped with the defending champions Nigeria, consistent European performers Croatia, and the host country Chile, and those are viable excuses.
Perhaps a tough group and a poor coaching strategy led to the U.S.' early departure. When judging youth teams, results are never the most important factor. At the end of the day we all want our country to win games and to cover itself in glory on the international stage. At the youth level, especially such a young age group as the U-17's, individual performances are much more important in judging the overall progress of the system.
While the U.S. struggled with keeping possession and a consistent play style (like almost every other American team this year) there were signs of encouragement from an individualistic perspective.
Throughout the years the American soccer player has been criticized for their lack of technical ability, or more specific, their first touch. Jurgen Klinsmann sat on the ESPN analysts desk during the 2010 World Cup and correctly pointed out this fact. A player's first touch is one of if, not the most important skill sets required for top level competition.
When looking at this crop of players in relation to others from years past, the improvement isn't glaringly noticeable but they are certainly there. It all begins with the starting fullbacks. Typically these positions for the USMNT setup have been reserved for great athletes with tireless work rate and sub-par technique. The Frankie Hejduk's and the Jonathan Bornstein's of the world.
Matthew Olosunde and John Nelson are a different breed of player. They both have the ability to receive a pass with a crisp first touch and then pick out another pass in quick succession. Both want the ball at their feet and aren't afraid to play in tight areas. While this seems like a small detail in regards to the big picture, it's actually a very encouraging sign.
This team was littered with players who show the potential to become quality professional soccer players with proper technique. Christian Pulisic is the obvious name that everyone is already aware of, but the list doesn't stop with him. Tyler Adams, Luca De La Torre, Alejando Zendejas, and the list goes on and on. These players have a crisp first touch and want to play with the ball at their feet.
Then you look at the case of Haji Wright. He's a physical freak of an athlete and has scored tons of goals at this level. However, he struggles consistently with his first touch and this hurt him at the highest level of competition for this age group. He was replaced in the starting lineup after the first game and saw few minutes afterwards. This is also an encouraging sign of the program making technique a priority.
Unfortunately, the team were failed by their coach's tactics and the results told the tale. As long as the U.S. Soccer Development Academy continues focusing on the technical aspect of the game there is a reason for hope for the individual American soccer player.
The overall play style with this team under head coach Richie Williams was sorely lacking. The tactics are an important factor and one of the main reasons for the U.S.' failure. Until the coaching in this country improves at every level we'll never get the success we desire. The step we're currently at is consistently producing players like Olosunde, who are both athletically gifted and technically sound. The final and most crucial step is educating the educators on how to get the most out of ever-increasing young talent pool.