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Sep 7, 2006

U.S. displays improved technical skill

The U.S. U-17 men's national team recently completed its tour of southern England in the Pepsi Invitational tournament (Aug. 30 - Sept. 3) leaving the players, coaches and fans with much to reflect on.

The axiom that statistics and damned lies represent a complete whole never rang truer than in London last week.

The U-17's 0-1-2 (W-L-T) record bears little resemblance to the quality of the team and its play but also highlights an inability to articulate just how good the team can be.

The opening match against Portugal on Aug. 30 represented something of a watershed. This U.S. side ripped to pieces a European side on a tactical and technical level.

The country that produced Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo simply could not live with the American tempo, skill levels and movement. However, herein lies the problem. Having proved their superiority and got their noses in front with a goal from Axel Levry early, the U.S. players took their foot off the gas and gave up a 77th minute goal to Portugal's Dinis for a 1-1 tie.

The one aspect of U.S. play you can normally guarantee -- the mental approach -- had deserted the side, but of course, they're teenagers.

Against England on Sept. 1, the U.S. experienced a very steep and harsh lesson in soccer at The Recreation Ground, which produces one of the best atmospheres in England. The stadium still has the old style terracing and at times feels and is louder than Old Trafford.

The U.S. came up against an organization that had sent a number of scouts to the Portugal game, and a set of players that are training with Premier League clubs, alongside the world's best players.

The final 6-0 score reflects the U.S. inexperience in such an environment, rather than an inability to play as John Hackworth explained. "England, they have been in this environment on a regular basis and have traditionally played the game at a higher level.

"All those players on the field were fantastic, I have a huge respect for them but this is the environment they play in and are brought up.

"We go back to Bradenton and have to create that environment daily. I need to get [Dan]Wenzel, [Greg] Garza or [Danny] Barerra not to turn it on when they have to. They need to do it whenever they step across the white line."

Hackworth also bemoaned the lack of urgency displayed by his team. "Against England we actually played some good stuff and passed the ball around, but when it came to that urgency we didn't have it," he said. "It was an awesome environment. [The crowd] sounded like 60,000, it was pretty raucous. We played good soccer but England did, too, and went after the game and we don't have that killer instinct."

The amazing ball of contradictions that is the very best of youth soccer in the States summed itself up perfectly in the team's finale -- a 2-2 draw against Turkey at Staines Town on Sep. 3.

Coach Hackworth made six changes to the side, and five won their first U.S. cap.

In the opening quarter the U.S. was comfortable and competitive against a wonderful set of highly skilled players.

Inexplicably, the U.S. then sat back and allowed Turkey to impose its game and produced some exhilarating soccer that rarely has been witnessed at youth level.

The game turned into something of a Turkey shoot -- or should I say U.S. shoot -- and through a mixture of poor finishing, the woodwork and sheer luck, the U.S. escaped the half only 1-0 down through an Eren Bayrak strike on 26 minutes.

The second half response provided an intriguing insight into the personality and dynamic of the U.S. U-17 side.

The team was clearly buoyed by the halftime team talk and produced a goal worthy of Ronaldinho through Sheanon Williams, seven minutes into the second half.

Turkey failed to clear their lines and Williams, with his back to goal on the edge of the area, chested the ball and bicycle-kicked into the top left hand corner. Turkish goal keeper Ersel Cetinkaya could only watch in amazement. The rest of the half saw the introduction of rising star Wenzel for the U.S. and a further exchange of goals.

Coach Hackworth's thoughts on the week's events offered an insight on the future and difficulties of U.S. Soccer.

"We were down twice by a goal and rebounded from the humbling experience of the last match. It showed good character, these are things we can build on.

"We need the exposure to feel comfortable playing at this level. Our federation has given fantastic support because they recognize we need these kinds of matches," Hackworth said.

"We've played three international matches where the players weren't so savvy and experienced.

"I couldn't imagine us playing Portugal, Turkey and England and being able to be technically and tactically playing soccer that was as good as theirs and at times better.

"Even six months ago or last spring it was just not going to happen. We have now made that step and now we now need to get back to what we survived on, which was a mental and physical toughness and bring it together."

The current U.S. U-17s prove that the U.S. continues to have an influx of young prospects who can potentially prosper at the top level.

However, some of their European counterparts will be signing pro contracts next year and could even be playing in the Champions League. The U.S. players, on the other hand, will be thinking over college and MLS opportunities.

The system works and is a healthy alternative to the European model, but can U.S. soccer keep these players progressing at the same rate? Pepsi Invitational Wednesday, Aug. 30 USA 1, Portugal 1 Goal scorers: USA - Axel Levry, 10 Portugal - Dinis, 77 Friday, Sept. 1 USA 0, England 6 Goal scorers: England - Henri Lansbury, 15 Moses Barnett, 28 Seth Ofori-Twumasi, 40+2 Michael Woods, 48 Rhys Murphy 54 pen, 73 Sunday, Sept. 3 USA 2, Turkey 2 Turkey - Eren Bayrak, 26 USA - Sheanon Williams, 47 Turkey - Batuhan Karadeniz, 64 USA - Howard Turk, 68