Coach John Hackworth's U.S. U-17 squad flew out to Korea earlier this week not in hope of progressing at the U-17 World Cup, but with expectations. Over the last two years his side has toured the world and competed against the very best teams.
The quality of U.S talent being produced, allied with astute coaching by Hackworth, has led to a competitive evolution for American soccer at the U-17 level. While the senior level men's team still relies on work rate and opportunism, fans of the U-17 squad can expect the U.S to be held in the same esteem as the very best in Europe and South America. With players like Ellis McLoughlin, Dan Wenzel and Zac MacMath, the U.S. possesses world-class talent. Here's a breakdown of the roster:
Since the '90s, the U.S. has established a tradition for producing some of the finest goalkeepers in world soccer. The U-17 pool has the potential to continue this legacy: Josh Lambo, Zac MacMath and Larry Jackson mirror the competition for the starting position in the senior team over the last 13 years.
Hackworth believes the nation's sporting culture is conducive to producing world-class shot stoppers.
"Our sports culture lends to goalkeeping as there is a lot of hand eye coordination in our games, and athleticism," Hackworth said. "The position has evolved, though you have to be able to play and read the game, it's much more than making saves now.
"We have two of the best in MacMath and Lambo, and Jackson has a very big future, if they get it right they will make a couple of important saves, but most importantly they will manage the games and be making good decisions."
The U-17s back line represents a reassuring progression in the standard of American back play. At senior level the defensive unit is functional and hard working; against the more sophisticated European and South American sides, however, it can be pulled apart too easily. Going forward, a lack of genuine technical ability under pressure results in long diagonal balls being aimed at a target man.
The current U-17s have played in most soccer cultures and have developed a deep-lying blanket defense that they can operate in any climate. Said Hackworth, "We have played so many different countries worldwide that they [the U.S.] have developed our own defensive system. Unlike other teams they are very calculating in how they retrieve the ball from the opposition. We drop our line and then squeeze the space before they get in a dangerous position we play them from the halfway line.
"In our system of play we rely heavily on our outside backs, they need an 'S' on their chest and a cape on their shoulders, because we require Supermen. The way that we press, those guys have to work hard and then be our first outlet for attack. They have the best chances to attack and read the game."
He added that, "Sheanon Williams and Kofi Sarkodie will be starting for us. Brandon Zimmerman can also step in and play big. Right now Mykell Bates is our captain and rock. Tommy Mayer is a very good player and a prototype center back."
The U.S is strong in the full back positions. Williams and Sarkodie are difficult to beat, and going forward Williams offers the same options as a midfielder. Mayer and Bates make an exciting pairing in the middle, they are comfortable on the ball and are not fazed by the best European and South American attacks.
The U.S midfield offers an exciting mix of guile, vision and industry. Deep-lying defensive midfielder Dan Wenzel is crucial to the U-17s unique style -- playing a similar role to former Man United great Roy Keane, with a great range of passes.
Jared Jeffrey, Bryan Dominguez and Gregory Garcia exude confidence and work well to squeeze the ball off the opposition. Their key qualities are playing out of the tackle, retaining possession and beating their opposite number under pressure.
The midfield quartet's work rate and skill allow it to dictate the midfield, but the unit is prone to overconfidence and an inability to convert pressure into goals. Hackworth beams with pride when he discusses his midfield:
"When the midfield is rolling the fans will love it," he said. "Wenzel is one of the best young tacklers I have ever seen, but it's his range of passing that is impressive. He knows the right pass, which isn't always 50 yards down the field and that is important.
"Then there is Jared Jeffrey, Gregory Garza, and Bryan Dominguez. They sit in front of him and are very different and again are possession-based technical players. All three join the attack at will, this is something opponents will have to figure out. How to handle our midfield."
The U-17s are uncomfortably reliant on Seattle native Ellis McLoughlin. He leads the line with a maturity beyond his years. Furthermore, he knows he has to perform for the team to be effective. The most impressive aspects of his game are his confidence in consistently putting himself in positions to score and his ability to find the net when it matters. Alex Nimo has also entered the picture as a playmaker and will add variety to the attack.
Said Hackworth, "McLoughlin will lead the attack and I expect him to have a fantastic World Cup. He is in great shape. Even if the midfield is not playing well he is always dangerous. If he gets the help and service, he has the potential to break out and be a star in this World Cup.
"Alex Nimo is the most interesting guy in the squad, he is not very tall, but he is very strong and very good on the ball. He can play in the midfield and attack, and it takes a lot to contain him. Again he helps us being dynamic in attacking and interchanging the midfield."
Andrew Rogers is a freelance contributor to ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.