By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 26, 2019) US Soccer Players - The US Under-17 National Team begins their journey to the U-17 World Cup next week when the Concacaf U-17 Championship kicks off at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The regional qualifying tournament is the first big event under new coach Raphael Wicky. It’s also a timely signpost for a keenly-watched age level whose current crop has more fully professional players than ever. It’s also a homecoming of sorts.
Based at IMG for two decades, the U-17 program comes full circle by returning for this tournament. The coming months mark the culmination of their first World Cup cycle since the closure of the Bradenton Residency Program in 2017.
Starting with the 1982-born cohort led by Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, for two decades US U-17s lived and trained at that very same IMG Academy for the better part of two years leading up to their World Cup. The idea: speed development of the country’s very best young prospects by congregating and immersing them in a pro-caliber environment the likes of which few American kids could access.
The United States powered to a 4th-place finish at the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship in New Zealand. Several of those players went on to become long-term USMNT contributors. Though successive groups reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 2003 and 2005, no ensuing cycle ever quite reached the same heights. The setup seemed to outlive its usefulness as MLS and the Federation finally grew to offer more paths for aspiring prospects, aided by the founding of the US Soccer Development Academy in 2007.
“When the residency program started, there was no Development Academy, there were no MLS teams investing in youth development and there was no particular training direction,” USSF youth technical director Tab Ramos said when Bradenton’s shuttering was announced two years ago. “Most youth players at all levels were training twice per week and playing anywhere from one to five games on the weekends. Now we live in a completely different landscape.”
A few months later coach John Hackworth led a US squad dotted with professional signees to the quarterfinals of the World Cup in India, where they fell to eventual champions England. That combined with subsequent waves of growth has fueled high expectations for this year’s team.
“On a talent level, the pool is excellent,” said Hackworth, who began this cycle in charge of the U-17s before departing to join USL club Louisville City, in a conversation with USSoccerPlayers.com this week. “I was really impressed with both the quality of them in terms of athletes but also some really good individual humans in there, young men that have good character, that take a great amount of pride and responsibility in how they go about their chosen profession as footballers.”
There’s Gio Reyna, the gifted 16-year-old son of Claudio who took his hard-charging attacking skills from NYCFC to Borussia Dortmund over the winter. The smooth, versatile Gianluca Busio is not only a regular for Sporting Kansas City’s first team, he's also scored three goals in six MLS appearances this season.
Striker Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez and central midfielder Danny Leyva spearhead the Seattle Sounders’ youth movement, which made history last week by defeating several elite overseas opponents en route to winning the top flight of MLS’s Generation adidas Cup. Defender Kobe Hernandez-Foster is the most vaunted of three solid LA Galaxy players called in and could well be part of their first team by year’s end. Damian Las and Chituru Odunze comprise an impressive goalkeeping corps.
Tyler Freeman, Gilbert Fuentes, Joe Scally, Ricardo Pepi, and Griffin Yow have already moved up to professional training routines at their respective MLS/USL teams. Even the ones not available to Wicky may offer reasons for general optimism. Like defender Mason Judge and midfielder Peter Stroud. Their respective European clubs Eintracht Frankfurt and West Ham aren't releasing them. That could open up dark-horse opportunities for some of the less prominent players to shine, though there are questions to answer in central defense.
All said, there should be more than enough quality to book one of the region’s four World Cup berths, especially with the qualifying tournament on home soil. Still, the task in front of these teenagers and their new coach isn’t a simple one. Plus, this year will shine a spotlight on the federation’s decision-making, not just on Bradenton but in the handling of the coaching post, which sat vacant for months as
“I don’t think that anything can replicate some of the preparation that we used to do, especially with residency,” said Hackworth, who served on the U-17s’ staff over two stints adding up to more than a decade. “So this one’s new for the US, and it’s going to be a test, because the reality is that you still have players coming from different backgrounds and not all of them are in professional clubs. The majority of them are, but even in those professional environments they’re getting different opportunities at different levels. Some of them are still playing Under-17 soccer and that’s far different from, using Busio as an example, if you’re playing for Sporting Kansas City’s first team and scoring and being impactful … Those are real issues as they come together and go through qualifying.”
Wicky’s hiring was announced on March 8, giving him little time to find his feet. The former Swiss international arrived with limited experience of the North American landscape aside from a brief stint as a player with Chivas USA in 2008. He’s had just one training camp with the U-17s before diving into qualification, which features a new format as well as the usual Concacaf quirks like David-and-Goliath matchups and difficult-to-scout opposition.
“CONCACAF has thrown a curveball even in that, too, because they’ve changed – and they usually do – even the process of how you qualify. This one is unique, I’ve never seen this kind of format before,” said Hackworth. “And Concacaf as a whole, you can’t really describe it to people before you go and live it. It is unique and it is challenging and you basically need to prepare for anything…. The great news for this new staff, there’s enough people that have worked in the federation that are now helping out Rapha that I think he’s going to have some people around him that have that experience and knowledge of CONCACAF and what it’ll be like. So hopefully that won’t be as challenging to him.”
Drawn into Group F, the US open vs Canada on Thursday, face Barbados on May 4, and wrap the group stage vs Guatemala on May 6. The top three of that quartet advance into a 16-team bracket where the four teams who reach the semifinals qualify for the U-17 World Cup in Brazil. That means winning two knockout round games. To top it all off, Mexico has won three straight Concacaf Championships, the most recent of which was capped by a dramatic penalty-kick shootout win over the US in the final after Hackworth’s side conceded a heartbreaking injury-time equalizer.
Will the U-17s get the job done? Fans can follow their quest via live broadcasts on the Univision Deportes Network and the CONCACAF GO app.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Training compensation - solidarity payments: a change, but not a solution
- A USMNT look at the 2019 Gold Cup
- Decisions, decisions loom for Tab Ramos as US U-20s count down to World Cup
- Taking stock of the USMNT’s March matches
- Takeaways from USMNT vs Ecuador
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