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U-20 and U-17 World Cups come at zeitgeist moment for U.S. Soccer youth development

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A period of unprecedented success for the Men’s side of the Development Academy culminates in two tournaments this summer. Will the United States meet and exceed expectations? And will it even matter?

Germany U20 v USA U20 - International Match Photo by Mark Robinson/Getty Images

The first thing you should know about youth development is that results really are not that important. All youth development is equal parts laboratory and tea leaf reading, as scouts, coaches, and coordinators try to identify and mold players from adolescent talent into professional player. Games are played and trophies are awarded, but those things are secondary to forming players that can eventually contribute to a club’s first team, or in some cases, a national team.

The second thing you should know about youth development is that results are definitely important to us soccer nerds that are obsessed with finding the next big thing. Maybe that’s an American mindset, the savior complex we all apparently have that’s been beat to death. It’s an easy mindset to scoff at as well. Poor Americans. Always hoping some kid will come along and save them from their crap football, from their “soccer.” This is the country that only six World Cups ago did not have a domestic league and needed to hold camps year-round for its national team just so their players could get games. It might kill us, but we want to see our youth teams win, dammit. We want to hope. We want to dream.

These are the two contradicting principles the USMNT U-20 and U-17 teams will be playing in the midst of this summer at their respective World Cups. The U-20 team won their qualifying tournament for the first time in the history of the program, in addition to beating Mexico in a competitive match for the first time since 1986. The U-17s dropped their championship game to Mexico in penalties, but also beat them 4-3 earlier in the tournament for the first time ever in that age group. There are more players on these teams than ever finding professional opportunities both domestically and on clubs abroad. Throw in the fact that all of this is being done without the services of a certain 18 year old who will be trying to help his club win the Dfb Pokal in a week, and there’s legitimate reason to be excited about the state of U.S. youth development. And that excitement, lately, has largely been built on the back of tangible results.

This summer also represents the end of the residency program in Bradenton, FL, the primary mechanism in the USSF’s development plans for the past 18 years. The camp has been the premier destination for U.S. youth players for almost two decades, and formed the bulk of its youth teams. The year of its inception saw the fabled team of Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, and went on to produce over 30 different players for the senior national team. In a country where professional youth development opportunities were extremely few and far between, Bradenton tried to bridge the gap as best as it could. Now, the program is closing out its final semester of play, just as two youth teams attempt to reach new heights.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of the residency program. It was a band-aid for the scouting and structural problems the United States had and continues to have. There is too much ground to cover, too few scouts to do it, and pay-to-play still rules the day most everywhere you go in the States, pricing out countless talents. But I do find it very interesting and encouraging that the Men’s youth teams continue to flourish in the year of its demise. It means, I hope, that the structure created by the MLS academies and Development Academy teams cropping up every year are giving all of these kids a better and more consistent means of developing, hurdling the pesky development stall between the ages of 16 and 20 that nearly all U.S. players seem to go through.

The U-20s begin World Cup play against Ecuador on Monday, and they will do so with two of their big marquee names being produced by North London clubs. Cameron Carter-Vickers and Gedion Zelalem, both born outside of the United States, had the benefit of starting their careers in European development programs far sooner than most U.S. players have the chance to. But they’ll also rely on the defensive nous of players like Tyler Adams, Erik Palmer-Brown, Justen Glad, and Tommy Redding, all of whom have seen first-team action in MLS. Josh Sargent will be expected to pull double duty at both the U-20 and U-17 World Cups. At the lower age group where he captains, he’ll be joined by Andrew Carleton and Chris Durkin, two more players signed to first team contracts, as well as Ayo Akinola, who stars for Toronto FC’s academy, George Acosta, who plays for Weston FC in the Development Academy, and countless other exciting attacking prospects.

Some of these players might turn out to be the next Christian Pulisic. Some might be even better; after all, Christian Pulisic’s U-17 national team only qualified for the World Cup by the skin of its teeth, and Pulisic himself missed a penalty in the shootout that sent them there. Then again, maybe none of these players reach his lofty heights. Maybe the U-20 team can’t overcome the loss of Weston McKennie, Nick Taitague, and Haji Wright to Schalke’s first team plans, or Fiorentina’s decision to hold on to Josh Perez, and they burn out in the group stage. Maybe the U-17’s lack of consistent defense finally bites them or they get snakebit in front of goal once their tournament starts. It’s impossible to know.

However, 18 years ago, U.S. Soccer started the youth residency program with the singular intention to improve the standard of youth development in the country and funnel players from the youth ranks into contention for the senior national team. 18 years later, they might finally be heading in the right direction. And win or lose at the World Cup, that’s a good start.