With the U-17 World Championship in Korea only a year away, the United States Soccer Federation signaled its intent to capture the trophy by sanctioning a four-week tour of Uruguay and Argentina last month.
The purpose of the tour was to simulate the experience the players are likely to go through if they make it to South Korea, challenging their ability to settle in a vastly different culture, adapt and play winning soccer.
The tour proved to be a resounding success for the U.S. U-17s as they learned to compete with South America's leading sides -- on their terms and in their backyards. The monthlong campaign represented something of a watershed for a group of players that has flourished at the international level when playing in their comfort zone but has failed miserably when forced to think on their feet and adapt to the unknown (for example, the squad lost 6-0 in England on Sept. 1 in front of a fired-up English crowd).
The U-17s initially floundered on this trip when confronted with Uruguay in Montevideo. Having won their last six international fixtures, coach John Hackworth's side simply imploded and was given a harsh lesson in the reality of international football.
The team started badly, giving up two goals in the opening 15 minutes, and the proceedings turned into a horror show as the U.S. conceded four penalty kicks and received two red cards on the way to a 6-1 defeat. The Americans were mentally asleep and simply failed to grasp the basic intensity required to compete. But for some exceptional work by goalkeeper Josh Lambo, the score could have been far higher.
The inability to control the game against an aggressive and tenacious Uruguay side was highlighted by the fact that both center midfielders were sent off for reckless challenges, and in the case of Daniel Wenzel a straight red for a wild two-footed lunge. The U-17s had clearly failed to learn their lesson, but given the extremities and nature of the challenge, there were likely to be teething difficulties.
"I think everyone believes South American soccer is all the beautiful game," Hackworth said. "That is not the case. It is brutal; these guys are very hard. The brutality and the physicality is on another level, but here it's expected. You literally fight for your life. I was disappointed in the way the team performed; we did not execute anywhere close to our ability. You have to learn from your experiences, no matter what."
While Hackworth was disappointed, defeat did highlight again a circumspect mentality when it comes to dealing with unfamiliar surroundings, that could prove damaging if not rectified. However, one area where the U.S. is not lacking is in its ability to bounce back from defeat.
The U.S. moved on to Argentina for the four-team Torneo Internacional Sub-17 tournament -- and proved it could play through poor performances by winning 1-0 against a competitive Peruvian side.
Despite a solid performance, Hackworth was pleased the unfamiliar environment exposed some of the naivete in his players' games that the Bradenton Academy shelters.
"Some of the players felt we had to match the South Americans for flair and artistry, when what we needed to do was impose our game, which is proving to be in some ways superior to many of the leading nations," Hackworth said. "We don't need players trying to do 10 step-overs and beat five players. It's positive that we ironed this out here in Argentina."
Surprisingly, one player in particular initially struggled: Wenzel found himself benched at halftime against Peru as Hackworth pushed for the win.
The final against Argentina proved to be a typically dramatic affair for the U.S. Argentina was playing in front of 3,000 home supporters as well as the presidents of Argentinean soccer and CONMEBOL, but the U.S. took a well-deserved lead five minutes before halftime on a smartly taken Ellis McLoughin goal. The native of Washington state has now scored eight international goals in 16 games.
The most pleasing aspect of McLoughin's game is that, irrespective of the opposition, he looks capable of unsettling defenses and scoring goals, which is something the senior side definitely lacks.
Argentina tied the game in the 74th minute, but the U.S. continued to press forward and create opportunities, succumbing only to a goal in injury time by Argentina's Nicolas Mazzola.
Still, the U.S. U-17s played Argentina on equal terms and had ample opportunities to win the final, providing evidence of how far U.S. soccer has come and how strongly this side is likely to perform in Korea next year.
"It was a crushing blow to lose that game," Hackworth said, "but to be in this environment and to play so well in that game, along with other aspects like the fans, being spit at, the rockets and the canons, it was everything that a soccer game could be about."
The learning curve grew steeper as the U-17s then competed in the Copa Ciudad de Rosario Tournament, which was comprised of top domestic teams and Paraguay. The U.S. was initially shocked by the tactics that the Newell's Old Boys side employed (a 4-1 defeat), but in their next game against Rosario Central the U.S. showed the full array of what it had learned. The U.S. controlled the clock adeptly, receiving four bookings and a sending-off before a vastly improved Wenzel sealed the 3-2 victory with four minutes left.
Hackworth said, "You do need to be cheeky; if you do have a lead and are winning, if someone breaks away or makes a big run, one of your players has to go down to buy you a couple of minutes. When we played some of the teams, it was incredible -- if they were winning, they simply tried to kill the game. There was no duty to make a contest, it was just simply kick the ball out of danger.
"It was frustrating when you're losing, but that is part of what it is. I really think it was an absolute eye-opener to our players. We are as good as them if not better, but they know how to win better than we do. It may not be the right way, but it's the reality of international football."
The U-17s tour of South America allowed Hackworth to test his side under World Cup conditions and fine-tune some of the details in his broad plan to conquer Korea next year. The U.S. has proved it has the technical and mental ability to cope in the toughest environments against the very best and win. Jared Jeffrey, McLoughin and Wenzel continue to thrive in any of the situations thrown at them, and in the goalkeeping department, Josh Lambo, Zac MacMath and Larry Jackson are indicating the potential to be the next Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel.
The true fruits of the U-17 groundbreaking tour may not be fully realized for years, but Hackworth said, "The players are getting the very best soccer education that exists; they now know how to handle themselves. Against Paraguay they were so happy and celebrated like crazy, but it was not just about the penalties -- it was because in their minds they had moved on, and that was the reality of the tour all around."
Andrew Rogers is a freelance contributor to ESPNSoccernet.