United States soccer fandom simultaneously takes youth tournaments far too seriously and not seriously enough. The results-oriented nature of the country is mostly to blame for this. The main goal of any youth World Cup is to get noticed and sign a contract, or stay in your current club’s good graces, ensuring them they have made a good investment. But we want to win, and we want our teams to win, driver’s license or no driver’s license, dammit. This can make it even harder to accurately gauge the actual level and potential of the players suiting up.
Want an example? The previous cycle of the U.S. U-17s won the 2013 Nike International Friendlies tournament in commanding fashion with standout performances from Christian Pulisic, Danny Barbir, Joe Gallardo, and Haji Wright. Pulisic soon signed for Dortmund’s academy, while rumors of Schalke’s interest in Wright swirled. Barbir trialed for Manchester City’s academy before settling at West Brom, and Gallardo was ensconced at Monterrey’s youth set-up. Now, Pulisic is scoring for Dortmund and Wright is on the books at Schalke. Barbir and Gallardo are both in the USL, playing under Vancouver Whitecaps and Orlando City SC’s umbrellas, respectively. Weston McKennie was a peripheral figure in that rotation, didn’t make the World Cup squad, and now he’s in Schalke’s regular matchday squad. And for how much we love Christian Pulisic (and other members of that 2015 U-17 World Cup team, like Erik Palmer-Brown and Tyler Adams), they didn’t make it out of the group stage. All this to say: results do not equal development, and predicting just who is going to become a good-to-great professional at 16 or 17 years old is still a little astrological.
The 2017 U-17s are exciting, much more exciting than their 2015 counterparts, and that’s a really great and a little concerning thing.
Good stuff first: this World Cup confirmed, even in the midst of some struggling performances, that this team is loaded with attacking talent. Josh Sargent became joint-leading youth World Cup scorer (tied with Freddy Adu, of all people), scoring 3 goals in addition to the four he scored at the U-20 World Cup. He scored 7 goals in 10 World Cup games. The crazy thing is, you could say that the U-17 was something of a disappointment for Sargent. That says a whole lot about his level and the expectations he’s already built for himself with his level of talent.
Andrew Carleton, in my estimation, was the best United States player of the tournament. His standout performance against Paraguay was impressive, but even when the team wasn’t at their best, he consistently stood out as one of the only U.S. players with good ideas in the attack. Timothy Weah cemented his place as a starter instead of a back-up, where he’d been throughout the qualifying tournament. George Acosta showed well from a more limited role than he’s used to, and even Ayo Akinola had standout moments in an otherwise disappointing tournament for him. The attackers on this team have the goods.
The flip-side to that exciting coin, on the other hand, is that the defense is bad. This isn’t to say that there are no good defensive prospects on this team. James Sands, bad giveaway against England notwithstanding, showed fantastic defensive positioning, decision-making, and passing range. Chris Durkin and Chris Goslin were wrecking balls going both ways. Sergiño Dest announced himself as a very capable right back in the modern tradition, strong in the back and going forward. But it says a lot that the first-choice center backs by tournament’s end are both midfielders, and the cover provided by the outside backs ranged from adequate to very poor. The defensive depth of the team is hilariously thin, and they rode their luck in a few games for better (1-0 against Ghana) or worse (1-3 against Colombia and 1-4 against England). The 2017 U-20 team guaranteed close games every time they played. This U-17 team promised nothing but goals.
So what do we take away from this tournament? Ultimately, it must be viewed as a positive step for the men’s set-up. Results in youth tournaments do not guarantee future World Cup victories. Ask 5-time U-17 champions Nigeria. And it’s very easy to take the heavy losses at the hands of Colombia and England in tandem with the senior team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequently despair. But the youth program is coming back from failures to qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup and 2013 U-17 World Cup, not to mention group stage exits in the 2013 U-20 World Cup and 2015 U-17 World Cup, with quarterfinal appearances at the 2015 and 2017 U-20 World Cups, and now a quarterfinal finish at the 2017 U-17 World Cup. That is measurable, objective progress for all of us results-oriented folks.
But even beyond these results, this is also one of the most professional U.S. youth teams ever. Weah, Sargent, Carleton, Sands, Durkin, and Goslin have full-fledged senior professional contracts and/or agreements. Several more players have entrenched spots in academies attached to professional clubs, like Akinola in Toronto, Dest with Ajax, or goalkeeper Justin Garces with Atlanta United FC. The transition from youth academy to professional club has historically been a troubling spot for the U.S. men’s program, with player development seemingly always delayed well into the mid-20s. With more and more professional opportunities opening up for these young players, there is legitimate reason to believe that this gap is finally closing.
It’s impossible to say just how far any of these players will go in their professional careers. But they were responsible for some of the prettiest moments at a World Cup that a U.S. men’s team has ever provided. And sometimes, that’s enough reason to celebrate as well.