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Why it matters that the U17 women’s national team lost again

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This is just the latest in a string of failures by US Soccer’s youth program.

Last week the U.S. U-17 women’s national team was eliminated at the group stage of the World Cup. Again.

The U-17s scraped by Cameroon, with their first two goals benefiting from some very generous refereeing; they were simply humiliated by North Korea in a 3-0 defeat; and they saw their best efforts of the tournament come to naught in a 4-0 loss to Germany in the final group match. And as the U.S. sat at home, Mexico advanced all the way to the World Cup final after outlasting Canada in an all-Concacaf semifinal.

So what went wrong (again)? Some of the blame must surely go to head coach Mark Carr. Carr’s selection choices, particularly on the back line, were open to question. His team’s play in the first two group matches lacked cohesion and organization. Carr’s failure to prepare his side for the possibility that opponents would individually mark key U.S. midfielder Sophie Jones was both inexplicable and unacceptable. The total failure to adjust to North Korea’s tactics on corner kicks, which led in turn to the concession of three goals from corners, was lamentable. And the naïve defending in the Germany match was just frustrating.

But these problems—though serious!—are only part of the story. What is more worrisome is that the shortcomings of the U-17s in Uruguay resembled the shortcomings of the U-20s this year in France and two years ago in Papua New Guinea, and those of the U-17s two years ago in Jordan.

In particular, none of these sides were able to effectively build play out of the back, control the rhythm of a match, and create chances through sustained possession and pressure, rather than merely by striking quickly off turnovers. Frankly, from the outside it’s hard to tell if that’s the case because the key decision-makers in the YWNT program don’t want to play that way, or because they simply have no idea how to go about developing sides that can.

Either way, for the past several cycles the program has been floundering, leading to tournament after tournament of muddled sides relying on individualistic technique, dribbling and take-ons.

It does seem apparent that YNT coaches have emphasized finding players who are quick, have good feet, and look first to attack 1v1—and that these selectors have cared less about on a player’s awareness, off-ball movement, or willingness to pass cleanly into pressure and receive and return cleanly under pressure. And it also seems apparent that the YNT coaching staff has struggled mightily to fit the players they do find into a coherent, mutually supportive tactical structure.

The result? Failure. Repeated, consistent, failure.

What went wrong this time

Take the matches against Cameroon and North Korea in this tournament, for example. The U.S. World Cup qualifiers and preparation matches made it abundantly clear that the U.S. gameplan was built around progressing the ball from the goalkeeper and backline to gifted holding mid Sophie Jones to attackers ahead of her, then letting those attackers individually improvise.

Predictably, both Cameroon and North Korea put two players on Jones to deny her the ball. That move put the onus on the U.S. backline and the rest of the midfield to build possession and break their opponents down. The result was turnover after turnover—ugly forced pass, unsuccessful dribble, long ball, you name it—and stagnant offense.

Against Cameroon, the first goal came on a recycled ball off a set piece, in a sequence that should have been whistled dead because of an injured Cameroon player; the second goal came from a ball over the top that led to a penalty—one awarded for a foul plainly committed outside the box. The third goal came after the U.S. had enjoyed a player advantage for twenty-five minutes.

Against North Korea? The U.S. were outshot 22-5 while creating absolutely nothing.

True, in the Germany match, the U.S. created many more chances, especially after going down 1‑0 early in the match. But most of those chances didn’t flow from sustained U.S. possession, but through forcing turnovers in Germany’s defensive third. In fact, we looked shakiest precisely when Germany kicked it long and left it to the U.S. actually to build an attack, not merely counter one. And the U.S. defense was far, far too open to long passes and counter-attacks.

In short, the U.S. was, once again, an obvious mess in this World Cup, from the opening minutes facing Cameroon all the way through to an 82nd minute red card against Germany. And we got the results that our play deserved.

US Soccer doesn’t make choices in a vaccuum

Now, some of you may be wondering whether this actually matters. After all—hasn’t the U.S. struggled in youth World Cups for several years now, and yet brought good young players through to the senior WNT anyway

It does matter, not only to the development of individual players selected (or omitted) to YNTs, but also to the broader club and collegiate culture in which that development occurs.

The U.S. Soccer Federation line on the YNTs is that they find the most talented, highest-ceiling players in the country and invest additional attention, coaching, and resources to make them even better, so that one day they can compete for the senior WNT. So if you think, as I do, that the YNTs’ stylistic emphasis on dribbling and take-ons at the expense of passing and combination play is a mistake, seeking and selecting players who fit that style means the YNTs aren’t looking in the right places—and are wasting a lot of time, energy, and money in the process.

And if a YNT coach can’t set up an XI in a coherent tactical shape that enables effective attacking without sacrificing defensive solidity, or prepare his players to anticipate and adjust to the opposition’s tactics? The players who do get picked to his teams won’t learn everything that they should.

Going astray like this may not make it impossible for the WNT to find the players it needs down the line, but surely makes it harder. And why would we want to do that?

On an individual level, making (or not making) YNTs materially affects players’ careers. Getting called into youth national team camps—let alone getting picked to a U-17 World Cup squad—is a great big seal of approval and prestige for a player. That improves a player’s connections, playing opportunities, scores in prospect-ranking systems, college recruiting chances, and so on. Conversely, getting passed over makes it just that little bit harder for a player to get seen and break through in college or the pros, however talented they may be. (Just ask Hailie Mace.) That the YNTs are making selections based on a narrow, incomplete set of skills and attributes means that the program is boosting (or hindering) the wrong players. And that matters to people’s lives.

More broadly, the YNT seal of approval and prestige for particular players also has a great big signaling effect. Everyone—coaches, players, parents—pays attention to what the YNTs say and do. What kind of style they play, what kind of players they’re looking for. Who they pick, who they pass over. What they teach the kids they pick; what they tell the kids they pass over. That the YNTs have gone astray will likely lead others astray with them. And that’s all the more true now that USSF has pushed through a whole new “elite” league structure to spread the good news about dribbling. (Excuse me, “positively impact[] everyday club environments to assist in maximizing youth player development across the country.”)

In short, if the YNTs are messed up—and right now they are—that’s going to mess things up for a whole lot of other people, eventually up to and including the senior WNT.

Change or keep losing

To be clear, the problems discussed here are by no means limited to the YWNT program. An over-emphasis on dribbling and individualistic attacking is deeply rooted in U.S. soccer culture. In the top tier of NCAA soccer, for example, only six or seven programs (such as last year’s champion, Stanford) actually play a style rooted in controlling the game through structured passing and combination play, rather than pedal-to-the-metal 1v1s (never mind longball-oriented physicality). And that same imbalance can be seen throughout the youth game, as well.

At the very least, though, we ought at least to expect the YWNT program to seek to counteract such an imbalance—not amplify it. And the fact that the existing style and player selection approach has now repeatedly failed at international level ought to spark a rethink in Soccer House.

Whether that rethink will actually happen, however, is a different matter. USSF is notoriously insular and uninterested in the views and perceptions of “outsiders.” They hire and promote from within—as witness the fact that each of the last two U-17 and U-20 coaches (B.J. Snow, Carr, Michelle French, Jitka Klimkova) were already part of the program when named to their positions. And USSF is happy with the way they’re doing things—to the point of setting up the Girls Development Academy structure to encourage youth clubs to follow their lead, rather than anyone else’s. Certainly the federation doesn’t seem to have let continued YNT underachievement dent its self-assurance so far. So one hesitates to say that this failure, rather than all the ones that have come before, will cause a shake-up and a genuine reassessment of the YWNTs’ playing philosophy.

But who knows. Maybe the replacement of April Heinrichs as YNT technical director, and the hiring of a new senior WNT general manager, will lead to change. Perhaps USSF will actually bring in some fresh blood—coaches and staff who think that U.S. sides can and should value possession and passing, as well as dribbling.

These changes could happen. But am I optimistic they actually will? Not really. As Damon Runyon once said, the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet. And were I a betting man, my money here would (sadly) remain on continued YWNT stagnation and failure.