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Current crop of U.S. U-17s show promise

BRADENTON, Fla. -- If there was ever any doubt about the burgeoning growth and importance of U.S. youth soccer in this country, then nowhere was its relevance more evident than at last week's Nike Friendlies held in Bradenton, Fla. In front of what is believed to be the largest crowd ever to watch a game at the Nike Friendlies (exact figures were unavailable), the U.S. U-17 national team took on the Brazilian U-17 national team on Saturday and came away with a respectable 2-2 draw. The tie was the second such result in three days between the two teams.

The games weren't of interest to just the casual fan, either. If one looked hard enough, one could spot high-profile attendees such as former national team coach Bruce Arena and U-17 residency alums Freddy Adu and Danny Szetela among the crowds, along with a smattering of MLS coaches and scouts.

Presumably most of them were at the Nike Friendlies for the same reason I was: to check out the new edition of U.S. U-17 talent in advance of next year's U-17 FIFA World Cup. Almost invariably every U-17 team is always compared to the famed '99 squad which reached the semifinals of that year's tourney and featured among others, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey and Oguchi Onyewu.

It should be remembered that expectations must be tempered at this level. Not every standout in this age group will reach the professional ranks, let alone star on the senior level. Case in point, the French U-17 team that won the 2001 World Championship title has failed to produce a single professional of note to date. The two headliners from that team, Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Anthony Le Tallec (now both with Liverpool), widely compared to Thierry Henry and Eric Cantona at the time, have largely been disappointments so far in the professional ranks. This tends to be the rule more than the exception with U-17 teams. The Australian team that ousted Donovan and Co. in the '99 tourney and lost in the final to Brazil contained exactly one player (fringe squad member Josh Kennedy) that was part of the recent Australian team that did so well at the World Cup.

Looking at the U.S. U-17 squads and the 54 players that competed in the '95, '97 and '99 tournaments -- it's too early to judge the '01, '03 and '05 squads -- only 11 (Donovan, Beasley, Onyewu, Convey, Kyle Beckerman, Taylor Twellman, Dan Califf, Marshall Leonard, Nick Garcia, Tim Howard and Nick Rimando) of those players have made any kind of a real impact as a professional. For a program that is selecting what it believes to be the cream of the youth crop, that's a rather low return on investment.

The lack of progression by many previous residency players inevitably leads to the age-old debate that has permeated discussion of the residency program. Critics of the residency program argue that the talent scouting does not expand its reach far enough and that players don't necessarily receive the right training once at Bradenton.

"It is stark crazy to spend millions on elite training for 16-year-olds and then turn them over to the banalities of college soccer ... if pro players are to be developed, the pro clubs will have to be in charge," wrote Paul Gardner in a column for ESPN.com last year.

It's a problem that is at last being addressed by MLS. The league announced in November that it would be implementing a youth development initiative whereby MLS teams would acquire and develop top young talent.

It's a step in the right direction, but for now, the U.S. residency program remains the best option for developing young talent in this country.

"I want to see MLS and the youth development program evolve so that we become obsolete. But for the moment we are a long, long way from that," said U-17 national team coach John Hackworth. "We need to have every MLS [team] have a residency program before this program will ever go away in my opinion. I think there is no alternative in this country and this is the best answer. It's not ideal but it's better than anything we have."

Scout's view
An MLS coach, speaking with ESPN.com on condition of anonymity, ranked the best pro prospects on the current U-17 team as follows:

1. Sheanon Williams -

"Extremely athletic, great at getting up and down the field as an attacking fullback. Good ability to distribute."

2. Ellis McLoughlin -

"Shows the ability to elude the fullbacks and move off the ball, holds up the ball fairly well, wants the ball and is willing to take the big shots."

3. Jared Jeffrey -

"Very quick, active, works hard and covers a lot of ground. Good leader on the field."

As for the talent itself, it's no secret that the U.S. is still searching for that creative No. 10, the type of player that can take a team to the next level.

"This is going to be a blanket statement, but I think youth soccer in America has to improve, and it is, it definitely is. But we have to develop some special players along the way," Hackworth said. "We scout constantly year round and there is so much parity at the youth level it's ridiculous ... so sometimes guys that are in residency and guys that are still on their club teams thousands of miles away, there's very little difference. What we need to do is try to find and create some of the special players that we haven't seen in the recent years."

That said, here's a look at early impressions of the U.S. U-17 team:

Overall: It was immediately obvious in the games against Brazil that there was definitely no love lost between the two teams, with a spate of yellow cards, two red cards and an amusing snub of traditional handshakes after the final whistle by both teams. While both games were fairly even, it's no surprise Brazil took the edge when it came to creating clear-cut openings and in its general approach and ability to break down the defense. The U.S. was for the most part a little too reliant on set pieces to generate most of its scoring opportunities. While this isn't necessarily an indictment, especially when playing with a team with the technical skill of Brazil, the flaw was also apparent when the U-17s took on St Louis powerhouse Scott Gallagher. One thing to admire about this U.S. squad is the feisty and aggressive attitude both on and off the field, and their mental approach in coming from behind in both games to stalemate the Brazilians.

"We knew Brazil would be good, even before they came here and stepped on the field," defender Sheanon Williams said after the game. "We try to respect them, but we don't respect them too much. I mean, they're arrogant and we knew that would be their downfall"

Goalkeepers: With Josh Lambo nursing an injury, Zac MacMath got most of the work against Brazil and came through well. Observers have said that the current crop of goalkeepers (which also includes David Meves and Larry Jackson) have the potential to one day rival standouts such as Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel. While reluctant to compare players, Hackworth said, "Our goalkeeping is exceptional right now, and probably we've never had as deep a core and as talented a core of goalkeepers here."

Defenders: Most of the U.S. central defenders seemed cut out of the same mold -- fast, physical, aggressive and athletic. You could probably lump Mykell Bates, Howard Turk and Aubrey Perry together since there's not much between them. One other defender that did jump out was converted attacker Sheanon Williams. Showing surprising defensive ability and instincts for a former forward, Williams also impressed on the right flank in his ability to run at people off the dribble. Williams is a surefire pro if ever there was one -- at this point he's reminiscent of England international Glen Johnson. One name that's familiar is Kofi Sarkodie, the younger brother of former U-17 member and current Indiana standout Ofori Sarkodie. However, Kofi Sarkodie's not quite the prospect his brother is. Although he's solid defensively, he still seems unsure and hesitant with the ball at times and his distribution needs work.

Midfielders: A couple of midfielders stood out -- with U.S. U-17 captain Jared Jeffrey in particular making the biggest impression. Jeffrey, whose favorite players are Clint Dempsey and Kaka, impressed with his range, energy and two-way play in midfield. Along with Williams, Jeffery looks to be the most capable of making the leap to the professional ranks with ease. Dan Wenzel has received a lot of press clippings, but still struggles to impose himself on a game on a consistent basis. At present he appears to be a little too passive at times and uninvolved for a holding midfielder and probably needs to work on his stamina as well. If he doesn't improve, Wenzel could well be challenged down the line by Nick Millington. Millington, who can play central defender and midfield, is a very composed midfielder who looks born to play the holding role. He's very assured, decisive and comfortable on the ball and generally makes good decisions. At 6-foot-2, Dane Shea can be an imposing physical presence at this level, especially as an aerial threat. However, Shea still needs a lot of work on his technical skill and touch on the ball since he's too reliant on his size advantage at the moment.

Forwards: The headliner here is Ellis McLoughlin, who remains the U-17s most dangerous threat and chief source of goals. McLoughlin's not the kind of player who will consistently make things happen on his own, and to some degree might be dependent on service, but he seems to have great instincts and finishing ability and shows clutch intangibles. Abdusalem Ibrahim and Bryan Dominguez are quick, creative types that can create off the dribble, although Ibrahim needs to work on his finishing while one hopes that Dominguez fills out more (he's currently only 5-foot-4).

How good is the current crop? It's still too early to say what reasonable expectations would be for next year's World Cup, but the early signs are promising. As Hackworth said, "We're talking about 16-year-old kids and there's a lot of soccer left in them. I'm very happy with my team, I don't think there's many teams that can play Brazil to two consecutive draws. You know what? I'm pretty impressed with them right now."

Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPNsoccernet and also writes a blog Armchair Musings. He can be reached at: armchairsweeper@gmail.com.