Rongen emphasizes team unity for U-20s
Now that the final U-20 roster for the CONCACAF qualifying in Panama has been named by coach Thomas Rongen, it's possible to analyze the squad that will compete for a spot in this year's U-20 World Cup.
Though there are standouts at certain positions, Rongen squelched the idea that one superstar could be expected to carry the U.S.
"No one player makes this team," Rongen stated. "We're getting better every cycle and deeper in positions and we have a lot of quality guys who are currently with us who can do the job."
A look at the roster:
One player who has star potential is the 6-foot-4 Maryland product Chris Seitz. Seitz has the tools to pull off the kind of U-20 performance that made Kasey Keller famous years ago.
Like Keller back then, Seitz enters the U-20 camp with the momentum and confidence of a stellar college career behind him.
"I feel confident coming out of the college season," said Seitz. "It's always nice to get back on the field."
Brian Perk, the other goalkeeper on the roster, can't be considered a mere backup, since he's made a habit of pushing for the starting position wherever he has gone. Though younger than the other options on the U-17 team in his cycle, Perk fought his way onto the first team by the time his residency in Bradenton ended. When he arrived at UCLA, Perk again won a number of starts away from senior Eric Reed.
The defenders are among the squad's most experienced players. Tim Ward (Columbus Crew), Nathan Sturgis (LA Galaxy) and Quavas Kirk (LA Galaxy) are all MLS players with numerous youth national team appearances. The defenders from the collegiate ranks, such as Ofori Sarkodie, Amaechi Igwe and Julian Valentin, are veteran international competitors as well.
Sturgis featured prominently for the team in the U-20 World Cup in 2005, taking part in all three of the opening games. Ward sat out the tournament due to injury, though he had participated in the qualifying. Both players are versatile enough to play anywhere on the back line, and can also play as defensive midfielders.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the midfield features most of the squad's creative and skillful players. Captain Freddy Adu, now of Real Salt Lake, also adds an unprecedented familiarity with the U-20 World Cup, having played in two previous editions.
After last-minute negotiations failed, Michael Bradley was not released from Dutch team Heerenveen, though the club did allow Robbie Rogers, a highly skilled player, to participate with the U-20s. Though listed on the current roster as a forward, Rogers also has extensive midfield experience. Despite Danny Szetela's veteran status, his long injury spell with the Columbus Crew makes his current form a bit of a question mark.
Bradley's absence triggered the biggest shake-up in the U-20 roster, as UCLA's Tony Beltran, named an alternate to the squad after the December camp, was recalled to the team. Deciding he needed the versatility of a two-way player, Rongen cut Jeremy Hall, who is more of an attacking midfielder, and Blake Wagner, who is more of a purely defensive force.
Jonathan Villanueva and Bryan Arguez are the unproven elements in the midfield, yet their potential to contribute as support players while gaining experience for the next cycle appealed to Rongen.
The forward corps is the team's biggest question mark. Though Preston Zimmerman was released from Hamburg SV to join the team, he was unavailable for the December camp. Bolton's Johann Smith will join the group even later, when the team travels to Panama.
"Preston Zimmerman and Robbie Rogers would have loved to be there from day one, but they have obligations to their clubs," said Rongen, who admitted the lack of time to integrate players might be an issue. "It's up to the coaching staff to decide how important Johann Smith is to us or do we feel confident and comfortable now with the team we've worked with for a month, going into that first game."
The main focal point on offense was expected to be the Red Bulls' Josmer Altidore, but his training was limited until recently due to a broken hand. UCLA's Sal Zizzo, a converted midfielder, adds ball control skills to the options at forward.
Harvard's Andre Akpan brings speed, size and a deft passing touch to the field. While untested in international play, the forward brims with confidence, and could be a revelation in qualifying.
Even with the final roster named, it remains to be seen which players took advantage of the opportunity in training camp to grab roles as starters. Because the games in the tournament are played on only a day's rest, Rongen may platoon squad members, starting off with an experienced team to set the tone, and then giving younger players a chance depending on the opening results.
No matter how one breaks down the individual components of the squad, a successful team relies on its ability to come together as a cohesive whole. Rongen is convinced his choices can do that.
"There's good chemistry. The guys like each other -- they fight for each other. I think in close games, that could be the difference for us."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at email@example.com.