|by Tim Froh|
Special to Climbing the Ladder
Tired, dejected, and bewildered, the heavily favored U.S. U-20s left the field last Saturday losers to an Austrian side that few suspected of winning. In typical fashion, fans were quick to blame everything from the slick FieldTurf at BMO Field, to head coach Thomas Rongen, to the entire structure of the USSF. In spreading the blame around though, only a few fans recognized those aspects of the tournament that were both a cause for celebration and a point of great concern. Taking a close and careful look at the tournament in its entirety, it's very clear that the U.S. still has a lot of work to do in its development of young players, but there is still much to be excited about.
Most of the typical complains begin with head coach Thomas Rongen. Understand first that I am not a big Rongen fan. I've never quite seen his supposed love for Total Football replicated on the pitch, and his in-game tactics are questionable at best. Nevertheless, what was clear even before the tournament was that Rongen has a very astute eye for young talent and is, by all accounts, a players' coach. The most common criticism, that Rongen failed to rotate his players and use his subs, has some basis in reality. Certainly, the U.S. team stood little chance of advancing to the final unless Rongen made sure that his key players got the rest that they needed. This rest never materialized and was made even more baffling by Rongen's insistence on starting at least one obviously injured players in the match against Austria, goalkeeper Chris Seitz. Had he used his substitutions more carefully against Uruguay, it's very possible that we would have seen a fresher, more relaxed side against Austria.
Still, if there are those willing to conceede Rongen's eye for talent, they should also understand the inevitable conclusion: the U.S. team was not deep enough. This was doubtless compounded before the tournament by winger Johann Smith's unfortunate injury. While his substitute Sal Zizzo stepped up and played superbly against both Poland and Brazil, he faded as the tournament progressed, and would have provided a huge spark had Smith not gone down to injury. Outside of Zizzo though, Rongen seems to have trusted few of his other bench players, opting more often than not to make defensive substitutions. While this may be indicative of a more defensive-oriented coaching style, Rongen's reluctance to bring Akpan, Ferrari, and Zimmerman speaks volumes about his confidence in their attacking abilities.
But even if we set aside some of Rongen's game management failures, what the U.S. accomplished in Canada stands as a towering achievement. No, it doesn't compare to the run of the 1999 U-17 team, but I've never seen a U.S. squad on any level look as good offensively as the U.S. U-20s looked against Poland. Firing on all cylinders, the entire squad looked to pass the ball forward, almost always on the ground, and almost always with quick, precise passes. Against Brazil, the U-20s looked just as good, but the Brazilians' offensive prowess really tested the backline and in particular, goalkeeper Chris Seitz. Nevertheless, these were two of the best performances by a U.S. youth team that I've ever seen, and it was a joy to watch them having fun.
While the games against Korea, Uruguay, and Austria were all sloppy, the two matches against Poland and Brazil showed the world a whole new crop of quality American attacking talents. Rogers, Adu, Altidore, Zizzo, and Szetela all looked stunning offensively. Adu's corner work to set up the U.S.' second goal against Brazil was a thing of beauty, as was Altidore's first goal. The troublesome temptation is to immediately bring these players into the senior National Team. There is no doubt that the U.S. is currently experiencing a dearth of quality scoring options up front, but that still does not mean that we should rush along players like Adu and Altidore, no matter how close they may be to truly breaking out.
This was a very strong tournament for the youngest player on the squad, Josmer Altidore. Not only did he score four goals from the run of play, but he remained a physical presence up top throughout the tournament. He's like Onyewu in that his size and physicality ensures that calls will go against him most of the time. While he had a tendency to fade from games (doubtless from fatigue) he worked hard in an extremely difficult role as the lone striker up top. His combination play with Adu can only whet our appetites for what we might see in the future.
Without a doubt this was Adu's strongest ever youth tournament. While some fans have criticized him because of his struggles against older professionals in MLS, what they fail to understand is that Adu is only an eighteen year-old. He began playing in MLS when he was fourteen. Struggles were inevitable, but Adu seems to have grown a lot as a player, and he was instrumental to the U.S.' success against Poland and Brazil. His play in those two games made scouts remember why they had salivated over him so many years before and demonstrated that Adu is still one of the world's top prospects in his age group.
Rogers, like Altidore and Zizzo, struggled from fatigue as the tournament wore on. However, in the first half against Austria he showed what a menace he can be, using his pace and skill on the ball to consistently beat his defender. With a nice shot and a decent cross, Rogers was an attacking force on the left and was unfortunate not to get a goal in this tournament. However, a tendency to fade late and his occasionally shaky defense leaves him with a lower grade than two of his other attacking counterparts.
Zizzo struggled later in the tournament, especially against both Uruguay and Austria as fatigue began to sink in. But against Poland and Brazil as well as against Korea (a game in which he was one of the few bright spots), he was a terror on the right side of Rongen's 4-3-3. He combined well offensively with his UCLA teammate and U-20 right back Beltran, and made smart, dangerous runs at opposing defenses. His touch and pace make him an intriguing prospect in a traditionally depleted position (right midfield).
No player, with the exception of maybe Adu, took as much criticism throughout the tournament as Michael Bradley. This is natural, especially since he's Bob Bradley's son and now a regular with the senior team. Expectations were understandably high and Bradley didn't quite deliver. He has a frustrating tendency (both with the senior team and with the U-20s) to pass the ball square or back instead of forward. However, he's also a strong ball-winner and a smart defensive player. His tireless work against Uruguay (not to mention his goal) helped us win that game almost single-handedly.
It's hard for me to give a player (let alone a two-way midfielder) who scored three goals anything less than an "A-" but Szetela warrants it. His knockout performance against Poland aside, Danny's defense and ball-winning was often suspect, as was his passing. Still, his goal scoring and finishing ability was impressive. His work also helped set up the game-tying goal against Uruguay. He still needs to hone the responsibilities of his position though before he can become a solid and consistent professional.
Knowing little about the U.S.' defenders before the tournament I can't say I was very impressed coming out of it. Beltran, while a very good crosser of the ball, was often caught out of position and had all kinds of trouble man-marking and ball-winning. It remains to be seen whether he can translate his offensive skills and manage his defensive skills to make it at the next level.
If there was one defensive bright spot in this tournament though, it would have to be Sturgis. While not particularly tall, his game reminds me a lot of Michael Parkhurst's. He is a solid player who reads the game well, makes smart challenges, and organizes very well. That the U.S. didn't concede more goals is credit to Sturgis and Seitz.
Valentin was supposed to provide some kind of aerial presence in the middle. If that's true, than he was a total failure. More importantly, his defensive tactics and positioning were suspect, and unlike some of our other defenders, he just did not have enough speed to compensate (something that Marvell Wynne has discovered really only works at the youth level). His game still needs a lot of work.
Until the game against Austria, Wallace had been something of a pleasant surprise. While still raw, his positioning was solid and his runs forward and passing out of the back were quite good. Against Austria he looked sluggish and slow. He was getting beat so consistently it was only a matter of time before he received his second yellow. Whether this was because his deficiencies were exposed (which would be to Austria's credit) or because he was fatigued (or both), he showed enough promise in this tournament to keep an eye on him.
Seitz would deserve a solid "A" were it not for Rongen's regrettable decision to start him in the Austria match. Clearly still hurt, Seitz struggled on the wet FieldTurf and made a meal of Austria's first goal. Still, for a keeper at this age level Seitz looks very good. That the U.S. was able to get results against Korea and Brazil was due solely to Seitz's work in goal. Couple that with very solid distribution (until his injury) and you have a player who will contend for the senior team in a few years.
Filling in for Valentin, Sarkodie looked solid, using his speed to his advantage. While not nearly as composed on the ball or as tactically sound as Sturgis, Sarkodie also didn't look out of his element. Why Rongen replaced him in the Austria game remains a mystery to me.
Perk had even bigger shoes to fill when asked to replace Seitz against Uruguay. While his distribution was not nearly as good, he looked composed through most of the game and helped limit Uruguay to only one goal. It seems quite clear though that Rongen had little confidence in him, replacing him for the Austria game with a still-injured Seitz.