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U.S. Misses U-17 World Cup; Cause for Alarm?

Unless you’re a hardcore American soccer nerd you were probably watching high-end, premium cable TV dramas on Sunday night rather than monitoring the progress of the United States’s U-17 squad at the CONCACAF championship quarterfinals.

Belated spoiler alert: the U.S. lost 3-1 to Honduras in Panama. As a result the U.S. won’t qualify for the U-17 World Cup later this year in the United Arab Emirates.

It’s also newsworthy since this will be the first time the U.S. will miss out on the bi-annual event after qualifying for the previous 14 tournaments.

What exactly this means to the long-term development of American soccer is a tricky question.

Is it a blip on the radar? An indication of larger problems throughout the U.S. Soccer Federation?

On the surface, at least, it doesn’t look all that positive for the USSF when you couple it with the failure of the Caleb Porter-coached U-23 squad last March to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics.

It looks especially bad when you realize Mexico keeps winning FIFA youth tournaments and took home the gold medal in London. El Tri’s U-20 team also won the CONCACAF championship this March beating — you guessed it — the U.S. in the final. On the bright side for the Stars and Stripes, the Tab Ramos-coached U-20 side still qualified for this June’s World Cup held in Turkey.

If you assess these sort of things with a black-and-white, pass-fail mentality it’s hard to defend American youth soccer development. If you really wanted to, you could go all the way to the top and blame Jurgen Klinsmann for failing to institute the sweeping, fundamental changes he promised when Sunil Gulati hired him in July 2011.

At the moment Klinsmann’s got his own issues to worry about with the U.S. senior side still looking at a rocky road to qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Brazil playing in the most competitive CONCACAF Hexagonal in ages.

Still, the U.S. approach toward developing youth players remains a muddled situation.

Seven starters on the U-17 team had ties to the “Developmental Academy” which is a partnership between U.S. Soccer and the country’s top youth clubs. It’s different than many places around the globe, where players are developed — starting at a young age — by professional clubs and their youth teams. For instance, German captain, Philip Lahm — a man with no love lost for Klinsmann — has been tied to Bayern Munich since 1995 when he was 11 years old. To its credit, MLS is getting better every year trying to develop strong academy programs, which in turn should increase the level of player development.

Judging the strength of any nation’s soccer development on its results in youth tournaments isn’t exactly the most prudent measuring stick. Yes, winning these events is meaningful but they can also prove to be fool’s gold. The world is littered with players who appeared to be the next best thing at 17 years old and were forgotten, floundering somewhere in the 3.Bundesliga four years later. For all the trophies they’ve garnered for their play at youth tournaments, the Mexican duo of Carlos Vela and Gio Dos Santos haven’t exactly lit the club world alight with their play. (If Dos Santos only had to play against the U.S., maybe it’s a different story.)

If we ignore the 2011 U-17 World Cup simply for the fact it’s too recent to get a gauge on its players, the last few tournaments have been a mixed bag toward the players it produced. Drawing sweeping conclusions about the health of soccer in American based on 90 minutes played by kids who are barely old enough to attend their high school junior prom isn’t the soundest litmus test ever created.

The 2009 U-17 World Cup featured current world stars like Borussia Dortmund’s Mario Götze, Malaga’s rising playmaker Isco (bound for a major Premier League payday this summer) and the enigma known as Neymar.

The 2007 tournament is a better gauge since its alumni are now entering their primes. This tournament produced a legit star in Golden Ball  winner Toni Kroos of Bayern Munich. The rest of the field is a mixed bag. Silver Ball winner — the fabulously Macauley Christanus of Nigeria — bounced around the Bundesliga and now plays in the Spanish second division.  A better example is Bronze Ball winner Bojan Krkic. The one-time can’t miss Barcelona playmaker has yet to find regular playing time and is now on the fringes of AC Milan.

Examples like this go on forever. Take Royston Drenthe, who won the Player of the Tournament award at the 2007 UEFA U-21 tournament. It was good enough for the Dutchman to get a contract at Real Madrid. Fives years later he’s playing at household name FC Alania Vladikavkaz in the Russian Premier League.

Going back and looking at the U.S. rosters from recent U-17 tournaments reaffirms the crapshoot nature of judging teenage soccer players.

From the 2007 squad the only noteworthy player to crack the senior U.S. lineup is Brek Shea.

Two years earlier the 2005 tournament  Peru was more fruitful for the Americans, producing mainstays Omar Gonzalez and Jozy Altidore. Also on that American roster was Nevan Subotic, who later ended up playing for Serbia on the senior level — a story for another day.

If we want to go back in time a decade, the 2003 U.S. U-17 team is even more star-crossed, featuring another would-be star of the future Danny Szetela (now retired from soccer) and some guy named Freddy Adu. Ever heard of him? (Adu is now playing for Bahia in Brazil — his ninth club since 2004.)

So yes, the U.S. missing out at this summer’s U-17 World Cup isn’t a positive development.

But it also doesn’t mean the cupboard being bare is bare or that the sky is falling for American soccer.

As with nearly everything when it comes to soccer in American there’s a lot of shades of gray with this one.

 

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