By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 19, 2015) US Soccer Players – Last weekend the USMNT U-17s booked a place in this fall’s FIFA U-17 World Cup by the skin of their teeth. The USA outlasted Jamaica in a six-round penalty-kick shootout to decide a win-or-else playoff match at the CONCACAF U-17 Championship.
Richie Williams’s celebrated squad started the tournament like gangbusters, but finished on an extended down note. The USA went scoreless in the run of play over their final two-plus matches, both against the Reggae Boyz. In the end, the USMNT advanced. That gives this highly talented group between now and October to prepare to make a run in Chile.
Evaluating top players at this age, much less gaining a wider perspective on the team’s performances, is notoriously tricky business. So USSoccerPlayers.com spoke with Keith Costigan, one of Fox’s lead broadcast commentators for the CONCACAF tournament and a veteran coach to boot, about the USA’s qualifying campaign, the legacy of the Bradenton Residency program that grooms this squad, and what it all means for the national teams as a whole.
You had a front-row seat for this event, where the USMNT reeled off three straight wins, only to slump down the stretch and leave qualification to the last possible moment. What did you see?
I thought at times they played really, really well. It’s a good squad of players, a lot of attacking options. And they started the tournament off so well…. But for me I think the real turning point was the Honduras match, being 2-1 up away from home and then to concede that late leveler, I think that had a carryover effect to that Jamaica game, with the missed chances and then loss.
Was the performance against Jamaica in the playoff game great? No, but they did show a little bit of character, defended well and got through a penalty [shootout]. So I think they’ll be a better team for it. And I think they’re a better team than they showed towards the end of the tournament. You scrape into qualifying, but now you’re in, I think they can do real damage at the World Cup.
With the youth development scene in a period of rapid evolution fueled by the growth of academies and more professional options at younger ages, American soccer seems to be caught between the “they’re just kids” and “they’re future pros” mindsets. How should we calibrate our expectations for this age level, especially with the many blue-chip prospects in this crop?
With this group, we should have high expectations. I do think we should be pushing our players. We need to find out how they’re going to cope in certain situations, that’s why I think it was good that they got through. They had a bad run of form towards the end of the tournament and they gritted out a result against Jamaica. They weren’t spectacular, but it’s not something we’ve associated with this team before. We’ve seen them beat England 5-1 [in 2013], they beat Brazil handily. So they’ve played against top teams. So it was nice for me to see them grit one out.
But I think when you look at the whole [Bradenton] residency program, it can become very insular, so all the players are around each other. Even though you’re fighting with each other [for places], there is a certain comfort level above that. You’re not dealing with the day-to-day issues of a club where you’re fighting for your place every week. So I’m not the biggest fan of having a residency program at that age.
I think players in a professional setting, if they’re good enough, at that age, will provide the pressure to see how they’re going to respond and react a little bit better than a residency program would. The dedication to it, players understanding how it is to fight for contracts at a very young age … I don’t know if you’re creating that atmosphere where everybody’s fighting for their place. It may feel like a family, but I just don’t know if that’s conducive to creating that environment that we want.
We see many kids at this age headed overseas, and members of this group are already at clubs like Borussia Dortmund, Fulham, and West Brom. Can you see the difference between them and their domestic-based counterparts?
No. I think we can get wrapped up in, “hey, you’re abroad.” There’s a lot of systems in Europe – I go there a lot, and there’s a lot of systems over there that aren’t very good. There’s some systems over here that are very good. So I think you can create that environment here, and a lot has to do with the individual player as well – how much they’re putting into it. Some players will definitely benefit from going abroad, but some players can be in that professional environment over here where they’ve got family around, where they have a better support group around them.
This whole, “You’re in Europe, you’re better” thing, we need to get away from that. It’s good that some of our players want to test themselves there, but I think the players that are left here or are still in residency, should see that as a challenge: “Well, you’re over there, I want to be better than you.” That’s a good challenge.
There’s a lot of chatter about the future of the Bradenton program – expanding it to multiple locations, tweaking it, closing it down entirely. What do you foresee?
Regional residency programs make more sense… but if I’m running an MLS academy right now and US Soccer are consistently taking our young players away and putting them in this [residency] environment, I’m probably a little alarmed. Because I feel like each club can create that professional environment themselves, and the national program can have their camps throughout the year. But you have to remember that the MLS teams are there to raise players for their clubs. They’re not there to just create national-team players.
If the reality was that all 18 players are going to move up – the reality is, maybe two of these players will be in the [senior] national squad in three, four years. Maybe two. Are you telling me that the residency program was worth it for those two? Are you telling me those two wouldn’t have flourished maybe being in a professional setting with their MLS club team, or going abroad? I don’t know.
You mentioned that you think Richie Williams’ current group can do well at the U-17 World Cup in Chile this fall.
Yeah, I do. You look in that midfield, you look at Luca de la Torre, you look at Christian Pulisic, I think Tyler Adams played well in a couple of roles. [Eric] Calvillo was very good on the ball. They have talent all over the field, they did try to play. The issue was when they came up against a very physical team.
You saw a little bit of it against Trinidad & Tobago, they weren’t AS explosive. And then Jamaica were very, very physical. It’s something they may come up against in the World Cup. If they come up against other footballing teams, I think they can do very well. But again, you look at U-17 teams of the past, they’re [the current group] probably more talented.
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