By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Aug 15, 2013) US Soccer Players – For the USA, the 1998 World Cup had been a colossal failure. The gains made in ’94 were extinguished with the last place finish in France that included going 0-3. There was nowhere to go but up for the National Team. The 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship held in New Zealand, offered American youngsters, those poised to someday play for the senior team, a stage to prove themselves. Although none of the other 15 nations gave the USA a chance, the Americans did not disappoint. Rather, they put on a great showing and gave the world a glimpse of what future American talent looked like.
Coached by John Ellinger, the team included fresh-faced teenagers who would go on to become household names: DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Bobby Convey, Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu and Steve Cronin. At the time, Ellinger vowed his team would succeed – and it did. It was no coincidence that the team’s success coincided with the creation of US Soccer’s Under-17 Residency Program at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. The players entered camp for the program’s launch in January 1999. The concept of Project 2010 was born, a program to put the USA in position to win a World Cup by that year.
At the time, US Soccer was basking in the glory of having its Women’s National Team win the 1999 World Cup on home soil, a tournament that catapulted soccer – and women’s sports – onto the front pages of newspapers and magazines. Brandi Chastain ripping off her jersey in celebration remains an iconic image. There was no such image for the men’s team at the time. Housing the country’s best teenagers under one roof and working with them on a daily basis was the start of the success the National Team continues to reap to this day.
To the surprise of many, the preparation was evident just 10 months later at the U-17s. In the first round, the Americans went 2-1-0, defeating hosts New Zealand, drawing Poland and edging Uruguay 1-0. In its final win, the USA won the game – and the group – in the dying seconds when Onyewu scored in the 90th minute. Ellinger recalled the team went into the tournament optimistic of getting out of the group phase and that their confidence grew with each win.
“We had put together a solid international unbeaten streak heading into the U-17 World Cup, so getting through group play unbeaten continued to raise all of our expectations and hopes to go deep into the tournament,” he said.
In the quarterfinals, the Americans were paired off against CONCACAF rivals Mexico. The teams played another epic match in their long-brewing rivalry on November 20th in Auckland. Ninety minutes later, the Americans emerged victorious, winning 3-2 to advance to the semifinals. The victory marked the first time the USA ever advanced to the U-17 World Championship semifinal. The Americans secured first-half goals from midfielders DaMarcus Beasley and Jordan Cila, and a second-half tally by Kyle Beckerman.
Not many teams, including Mexico, had given the USA a chance – something Cila remembers to this day.
“We definitely got that sense, but we loved that,” he said. “It was a lot of fun to shock teams with our ability, but more than that, we were such a close group, we knew we could will each other to win every game we played in.”
The Americans fell behind 1-0 on a goal by Hector Vallejo after three minutes when defender Seth Trembley was unable to clear a ball through the box that fell into the six-yard box for the Mexican striker to score. Things looked bleaker for the Americans in the 20th minute when Kellen Kalso, playing for the suspended Alexander Yi, was whistled for a penalty kick after clipping Ricardo Sanchez. On the ensuing penalty kick, goalkeeper D.J. Countess saved Sanchez’s shot to keep the game close. The US turned it on late in the first half with Beasley and Cila scoring in the 37th and 43rd minutes, respectively, to give the USA a 2-1 lead at halftime. Three minutes into the second half, the Americans scored again, this time Beckerman heading home from six yards out.
Asked to name his best memory of the tournament, Ellinger said, “Very easy. The goal scored by Kyle Beckerman on an assist from Oguchi Onyewu against Mexico to send us into the semifinal.”
Cila agreed, saying the win over Mexico “solidified that we were the best team in the region and also one of the top four teams in the world” at the U-17 level.
“After I scored a goal in that match, Kyle (Beckerman) dove on top of me during the celebration and he accidentally dug his teeth into my forehead,” Cila added. “I still have a small bump there to this day.”
The victory put the Americans in the semifinals against Australia. The Americans played another thriller on November 24 with the game ending 2-2 after overtime. On penalties, the Americans’ luck ran out. Captain Kenny Cutler’s kick sailed over the crossbar and Australia prevailed 7-6 in the shootout. The Americans would finish fourth (losing to Ghana 2-0). Donovan, who scored three goals, won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s MVP, beating out Beasley for the prize.
Ellinger’s team helped to build a foundation. The Americans would go on to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup with many of the same faces from ‘99.
“I think our legacy was that we proved that in the right environment, with the right group of players, US soccer can be very successful,” said Cila. “We were the first group to go to residency, but all of our personalities clicked immediately and we were willing to run through walls for each other and we remain close friends today.”
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