U-20s full of confidence on eve of World Cup
U.S. U-20 coach Thomas Rongen finally has picked the roster that will compete in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada this summer (June 30-July 22). The selections, as Rongen previously had hinted, tilted the team toward a majority of professional players. In fact, with 14 players, the pro players outnumber the college ones twice over.
However, it's not a given that the pro players will be the strongest contributors on the squad. In the 2005 U-20 tournament, two of the most impressive players for the U.S., Benny Feilhaber and Marvell Wynne, were both still in college. They shone even while projected stars and regular Major League Soccer starters Eddie Gaven and Freddy Adu struggled.
Adu returns to the current U-20 squad with the intent to use this tournament as a calling card for a contract in Europe. If, as captain, he can lead the team to the first podium appearance in U.S. history, Adu finally might prove his quality matches the hype that has swirled around him for years.
"It's the best team we've had," said Adu. "Offensively, we're one of the best teams in the tournament."
Consistency and chemistry are the watchwords for the talented, but unproven, roster Rongen has assembled. One key player, Michael Bradley, has yet to appear in a competitive match for the U-20 team, though he has the most full national team caps of any U-20 player.
Looking at the roster by position:
Defense -- Tony Beltran, Amaechi Igwe, Ofori Sarkodie , Nathan Sturgis, Julian Valentin, and Tim Ward.
The play of the defense likely will determine the fate of the U.S. team and the early signs are promising. The U.S. went through qualifying without giving up a goal from the run of play.
The Galaxy's Quavas Kirk, a contributor to the U-20 qualifying campaign who is sidelined from the World Cup due to injury, vouched for the college players.
"Ofori Sarkodie [from Indiana] plays good defense," Kirk said. "He's solid, just a great player, as is Jules [Valentin], [Nate] Sturgis and Tim [Ward] -- all those guys. They're going to hold it tight in the back."
While he doesn't have the savvy positioning prowess of Sturgis, Valentin has size and a willingness to do the defensive dirty work. Sarkodie also can play in central defense if needed. Versatile Tony Beltran might spell either of the outside backs or work in the midfield.
Midfield -- Freddy Adu, Bryan Arguez, Michael Bradley, Dax McCarty, Danny Szetela , and Anthony Wallace.
Good midfields are essential to controlling matches during play. The U.S. arguably has one of the best in the tournament.
"We've got Freddy [Adu], Danny [Szetela], and Mike Bradley in the middle," said Kirk. "That's a solid midfield."
Despite being the second-youngest player on the roster at age 18 (Josmer Altidore is the youngest at 17), Adu is the team captain. Adu can be magical on the ball at times, and has the potential to create goals with his deft dribbling moves. Bradley is more of a pure destroyer, however, usually confined to winning the ball and looking to pass to an open player.
Dax McCarty was dropped from the U-20 qualifying roster, a strange move. Since then, McCarty stepped up as a starter for FC Dallas and reclaimed a spot on the U-20 squad. McCarty is a gritty, tough player, who just needed a push to add a bit more aggression to his game.
Szetela seems to perform better with the U-20 team than he does for his club the Columbus Crew. One reason is his strong on-field chemistry with Adu -- the two played together in the 2003 U-17 World Cup.
Adu, meanwhile, also will have to fight the distraction of trying to lead his team at the same time his MLS club is struggling. The knock on Adu has been that while his technical skill is high, at times he struggles to link up with teammates.
"I'll get to play in my natural role, the No. 10," said Adu. "That's where I'm at my best, where I touch the ball more and create more."
Forwards -- Andre Akpan, Josmer Altidore, Gabriel Ferrari, Robbie Rogers, Johann Smith, Sal Zizzo.
The big name here is Altidore, but the Red Bulls star has yet to have an impact on many matches at the U-20 level. An illness sidelined Altidore through most of U-20 qualifying, but his strong play for the Red Bulls this season (he has three goals and three assists in 11 games), cemented his place on the squad.
Yet Kirk pointed to another U-20 forward as his breakout player.
"Johann Smith," Kirk said. "He's got a lot of speed and he's a strong player and very vocal. I think he's a guy who can get behind defenses and score a lot of goals"
While Altidore and Smith provide the speed and power, the U.S. also features a pair of versatile, skilled players who also can line up as forwards in Robbie Rogers and Sal Zizzo. The pair's passing skills will need to be in top shape to help the U.S. break down opposition defenses.
Harvard's Andre Akpan and Gabe Ferrari are also potential wild cards: Akpan is faster, and creates chances on opportunistic plays, whereas Ferrari has more experience at a higher level, playing in Italy for Sampdoria.
Goalkeeper -- Chris Seitz, Brian Perk, Steve Sandbo.
It was a surprise that Sandbo was named as the third goalkeeper, but the final goalkeeper spot often goes to a player who offers chemistry and provides a good example of professionalism.
The No. 1 shirt is indisputably in the hands of Chris Seitz, the former Maryland standout who has gained valuable pro experience this season as a rookie with RSL.
"Chris Seitz is unbelievable," Kirk said. "Who is going to be able to compete with him in the air? He's going to be dominating on the corners and free kicks. It's good to have him back there."
His backup Perk provides solid depth and has played well in limited opportunities.
In general, the U.S. team appears stronger and more talented than previous editions, but the different pieces have yet to mesh together into a truly cohesive whole. Even so, team spirit is high and the players are confident they can deliver on their promise.
"I'm excited," said defender Nathan Sturgis. "We're a stronger team than ever before."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.