Overseas flair gives Rongen even more options
Despite the fact that all the U-20 goals for the U.S. have been scored by players who currently ply their trade in MLS (Freddy Adu, Danny Szetela and Josmer Altidore), the squad has a European flavor that has yet to exploited. Michael Bradley, who plays in the Netherlands for Heerenveen, has played in all three U-20 World Cup matches so far, but the squad also has two other players -- Preston Zimmerman and Gabriel Ferrari -- who ply their trade in equally prestigious leagues.
Although both offer unique traits to the U-20 team, neither has seen any playing time in the tournament thus far. If the element of surprise was part of Adu's success (MLS teams have gotten used to defending him), it would make perfect sense to throw off opponents with different looks in the striker position as the tournament progresses.
Of the two, Zimmerman, who plays for Hamburg FC in the German Bundesliga, wasn't even expecting to be with the U-20 team in Canada. He wasn't named to the initial roster, but a late injury to another Europe-based player, Johan Smith, ended up opening a spot.
"It doesn't happen a lot that a guy in a starting position gets injured," Zimmerman said. "I was shocked, but excited to come over here."
Zimmerman, unlike Bradley, never played in MLS, going straight to Europe instead. Hamburg also has U.S. midfielder Benny Feilhaber on its books. Although Zimmerman has yet to debut with the senior team, he has been an integral part of the squads just a step below.
That gave the scrappy forward assurance that he could step into the U-20 setup.
"I'm always confident, and I know I can definitely contribute," Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman also has previous international experience, having participated in the 2005 U-17 World Cup, in which the U.S. reached the quarterfinals. Yet the U-20 World Cup is often scouted more heavily, as players can emerge as truly world-class, not just boy wonders.
Yet the comfort level gained from already knowing many of the U-20s helped Zimmerman.
"We're still best friends and we talk all the time, even when I'm in Germany," Zimmerman said. "There's a lot of different guys now, but with those players, nothing has changed at all."
One of those new guys, a classic overlooked prospect, is forward Ferrari. He wasn't called to the U-20 team until just before the final roster was chosen. That gave him little time to make an impression, but he didn't waste it.
"I did very well. I scored in the first camp -- scored three goals in two games," Ferrari said. "In the other camp, I played well, and after that camp, I was waiting for the call. I was really nervous, just because, obviously, I was the newest guy on the team. I didn't know if I was going to make the team or not. When I did, I was thrilled."
Ferrari is an especially intriguing possibility because his skill and progress is on such an upswing at present. He plays in Italy, for Sampdoria, where his career progressed rapidly after he went over early this year for a trial.
"About a week into the tryout, they offered me a contract," Ferrari said. "I didn't hesitate. I signed a contract. About two weeks after that, I was with the reserve team, then I went straight to the first team."
A citizen of not only the United States but also Brazil and Italy, Ferrari had options in terms of which country to represent. Yet the native New Yorker was glad to play for the U.S., pointing out how he enjoyed the diversity represented by his teammates.
"I love it," Ferrari said. "I was born in New York City, and that's what New York is all about. Everybody has a different background. Everybody has a different story to tell. It's the same here with the national team. A lot of the guys have African backgrounds, European backgrounds, South American. It's nice to see and meet people from different countries."
It also helped Ferrari's case for inclusion with the U-20 team that he was able to mesh well with key squad players.
"Whenever I played with Freddy [Adu], I thought there was a nice little connection there because I see myself as a technical player and he is obviously a technical player, as well," Ferrari said. "Before the World Cup, I was practicing with the Red Bulls and I got to play with Jozy Altidore a little bit. Those are two guys who I feel a bit of connection with on the field."
Like Zimmerman, Ferrari is eager for the opportunity to show that his European experience has prepared him well for the competitive arena of international play.
"They expect me to hold the ball up top and to be a creative player with the ball and to go one-on-one against defenders," said Ferrari of what the coaches wanted to see from him. "They know what I can do. I'm just waiting to get that chance."
Coach Thomas Rongen nearly overlooked Ferrari when making the final squad decisions, but must have seen enough worthwhile in his abilities to decide on his inclusion. If other squads take Ferrari, or even Zimmerman, lightly, the players could take advantage and really shine.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.