Despite a disappointing loss to England in the quarterfinal of the U-17 World Cup, this team deserves our thanks for being a beacon during this uncertain time for soccer in the United States. With wins over India, Ghana, and Paraguay leading up to their ultimate defeat, they provided us with some glimpses of what we may be able to expect in the future. Moving forward, there are three main reasons to be excited about what is to come for the Baby Nats. Most importantly, there has now been enough evidence that we no longer have to be blindly optimistic about the men’s national team.
As a nation, this is what we rely on results to form our truths about the quality of teams so it is only right to start with there. It is easy to look at the 4-1 quarterfinal defeat at the hands of England and want to pump the brakes. While it was not nearly the result that we were hoping for, England has been the best of the best in 2017 when it comes to youth tournaments as a whole. It was just over four months ago that the Three Lions went home champions of the U-20 World Cup in South Korea.
In route to the quarterfinal, this U-17 team racked up impressive results including a 3-0 victory over India in front of 50,000 fans and a 5-0 rout of Paraguay.
As if that were not impressive enough, leading up to the World Cup, John Hackworth’s side outscored Mexico 4-3 and Honduras 3-0 in the CONCACAF U-17 Championship before losing on penalties to Mexico in the final.
At the end of the day, players play the games to get results and coaches have a responsibility to deliver results. With what these youngsters have delivered thus far, it is hard to put down their accomplishments.
Much was made of the USMNT’s over-reliance on players past their prime such as Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard. With that said, having young talent to integrate into the team to replace said players is crucial. With the results that the U-17’s have delivered, it is safe to say that the necessary talent is on its way. While it may not have been present in past cycles, in particular the two teams that failed to qualify for the Olympics, it is coming to the forefront now.
Josh Sargent, the U-17 captain and soon to be Werder Bremen forward, has thrust himself into the spotlight ever since his performances in the U-20 World Cup in June that also saw the United States make a run to the quarterfinal. Sargent proved to be a catalyst for Tab Ramos’s team, finishing second in the entire tournament in scoring, despite being three years younger than the majority of the competition.
While many center forwards are specialists to a certain degree, Sargent is extremely versatile. He has shown his ability to hold up the ball, drop into the midfield to link up play, drift wide, and most importantly, he has been clinical in and around the penalty area.
Another name that has become somewhat mainstream in the U.S. Soccer spotlight is Andrew Carleton. Carleton signed for MLS expansion side Atlanta United this past year but has made a name for himself with the U-17’s despite limited playing time at the professional level in his rookie season.
U.S. Soccer fans have been critical of the inability to develop creative players, and while the rise of Christian Pulisic has gone a long way to towards putting those doubters to rest, Carleton’s ability on the ball could very well be the icing on the cake. While typically being deployed as a winger thus far in his career, Hackworth called on him to be the team’s No. 10 at the World Cup, and he certainly delivered.
In terms of the big names on this U-17 roster, Timothy Weah rounds out the list. While it may seem too good to be true, Timothy is the son former Ballon d’Or winner, George Weah. With a pedigree like his father’s, it was always going to be impossible to keep the attention off of him in America.
Weah is currently on the books at Paris Saint-Germain, and in case you missed it, he scored a hat-trick in the 5-0 win over Paraguay despite not being played in his preferred central role.
There is absolutely nothing negative to say about that performance. You won’t see a prettier goal by a teenager than his second on the night. Weah is worth the hype.
In terms of lesser known players, Chris Durkin played an integral role in this team and has already been playing professional soccer with D.C. United and Richmond Kickers. Unfortunately for Durkin, he was forced to play out of position as a center back for much of the tournament. Regardless, his ball-playing ability was on display at all times. Whether it was short passes to keep simple possession out of the back or the more aggressive type to break down lines of pressure, Durkin rarely misplaced a pass all while filling in admirably along the back line.
Chris Goslin is another player that should figure into the next USMNT head coach’s plans. Goslin plays his club ball in Atlanta with Carleton which should be scary for supporters of other MLS clubs. As a box-to-box midfielder in a midfield three, the youngster was able to show his dynamism in addition to his composure on the ball. Regardless of whether he was dropping deep into somewhat of a Michael Bradley role or picking up the ball in more advanced positions, you would be hard-pressed to find one situation in which Goslin looked rushed.
The United States does not have a player like Goslin at the senior level, and while that is by no means an argument that he is ready for the jump, it is a statement worth making. Time after time in this tournament Goslin made difficult passes look simple by splitting lines of defenders or playing long diagonals to switch the point of attack.
Plenty of other players have played crucial roles in the U-17’s success up to this point such as James Sands and Ayo Akinola, but those are just a few of the names that you should start familiarizing yourself with.
The Style of Play
You do not have to look hard to find criticism of the USMNT’s lack of urgency and slow, methodical play in route to missing out on the 2018 World Cup in Russia. You also do not have to look hard to see the contrasting styles of the senior team and U-17’s.
Traditionally, Hackworth has sent his team out in a 4-3-3, a formation much more aggressive than that of a Jurgen Klinsmann or Bruce Arena team. With that said, formations are not much more than a means to give players a starting position. What is more important is the way in which a team plays.
Unlike the performances we saw in World Cup Qualifying, the Baby Nats absolutely love to get the ball forward and quickly at that. They waste no time getting the ball from back to front. With that said, they refuse to do so by wastefully sending long balls for Sargent and company to chase down. They do so by always turning and looking forward whenever possible. While it sounds like a no-brainer and a simple solution, many players are extremely comfortable playing the way that they face, even if that is backwards.
Any time that a player picked up the ball in midfield, Goslin in particular, he would turn with the ball if space allowed rather than playing the simple negative ball to maintain possession. Even with that said, he was able to be highly successful in possession while always being a threat to go forward.
Goslin and Durkin constantly look for passes that can bypass lines of defenders, taking them out of the play. Whether that be to an attacking player finding a space in between the lines or long diagonals to switch the point of attack once the United States have absorbed pressure, they always want to advance the ball if possible.
Players such as Carleton and Weah offer a threat that not many Americans have been able to at the senior level. Both are dynamic when running at players and can cause opposing defenders nightmares with the ball at their feet. Creative players such as Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan have been the exception rather than the rule for U.S. Soccer up to this point. More players that have the confidence to take players on in the final third should mean more players capable of doing so.
Fluidity is something that the USMNT has struggled with for years up to this point. Jozy Altidore has cemented himself as the starter up top and with his tendency to drop deeper and bring others in to the play with his passing, the team very rarely offers a threat in behind. Arena had his hand forced into playing Bobby Wood with Altidore simply to have enough runners in behind to keep opposing center backs honest.
Thankfully for us, a special type of partnership seemed to form when Hackworth deployed Carleton as the team’s No. 10. While more often than not, Sargent is the one leading the line as the primary goal-scoring threat, when he did drop in to find the ball, Carleton took every opportunity to run off of him to be an option behind the opposing back line. A partnership as such would be a massive step in the right direction for the U.S. Soccer program.
Last but not least, the U-17’s were more than happy to apply pressure higher up the field, something the senior team failed to do and has been fairly criticized for. More often than not when opponents have possession in their own third, the wingers would sit a little deeper, forming somewhat of a 4-2-3-1. While that may seem like a negative move rather than a positive move, it is a move that forces most teams to play directly into their hands.
For example, in the opening match against India, the wingers dropped deeper essentially daring India to play the ball wide to their fullbacks. The moment that ball was played, the high press was on. The plan was to ultimately force that fullback into playing the ball into a central midfielder, more than likely facing his own goal and susceptible to pressure. For teams such as India that are not world class on the ball, this pressure typically leads to a higher chance of a turnover in the midfield third or a long, wasted ball in the direction of U.S. center backs.
The urgency and willingness to hunt down the ball is a sight sorely missed for all of us involved in U.S. Soccer. That reason alone is enough to be optimistic about the future. Couple that with recent results and the quality of players coming through the system, and it is time to believe.