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Sep 9, 2007

Lessons to be learned from U-17 World Cup debacle

Now that the dust has settled on the U.S. U-17s' World Cup debacle, it is time to take a look back at the team's four-game stay in Korea, which culminated with a dismal 2-1 loss to Germany in the Round of 16.

Make no mistake about it: the U.S. was totally outclassed in Korea. John Hackworth's team had no business advancing to the knockout stages of the tournament after losing their first two games and making fans back home want to stick pencils in their eyes.

Beating a pedestrian Belgian team in the group finale and squeaking into stage two based on other results glossed over some the squad's glaring deficiencies. It also gave supporters false hope, leading many observers to believe that the Yanks were finally finding their feet as the competition progressed.

And there was some reason to be optimistic that the Americans could get past Germany in a knockout match. After all, they beat them convincingly in a pre-Cup warmup not long before the competition began.

But that optimism was quickly betrayed. The Germans were far superior on every level and the final score line flattered the Yanks. With Michael Ballack-clone Toni Kroos leading the charge, Germany was able to create quality chances from start to finish. And if not for the heroics of U.S. keeper Josh Lambo and a consolation goal by Mykell Bates in second-half stoppage time, things could have been a lot uglier.

It was a bitter end for an American side touted as a legitimate trophy contender just a few weeks ago.

Whatever the reason -- overconfidence perhaps -- Hackworth's team showed an alarming lack of heart during its abbreviated stay at the World Cup. Even in the do-or-die second-round tilt that required an all-hands-on-deck effort, the commitment level left a lot to be desired.

"Sometimes it's going to come down to who wants it more, and who's going to fight for it. I think that's what we've lacked in this tournament," Lambo told ussoccer.com after it was over. His comments echoed ones Bates, the captain, had made after the 3-1, first round loss to Tunisia.

The squad disappointed in other ways, too.

Even lowly Tajikistan, which upset the U.S. in the opener, looked stronger, faster and better on the ball. Against Tunisia in the second match, it was more of the same. And overall, the Yanks displayed no short passing game, their attack was nonexistent (central defender Bates led the team in goals) and their tactical naivety was thoroughly exposed, particularly against Germany.

The evidence suggests that this was the weakest crop of U-17s Bradenton has produced since its inception eight years ago. The results leave one to wonder how this team could be so hyped in the Cup run-up before failing so miserably on the world stage.

And that is part of the problem with American soccer in general and the U-17 team in particular: Unproven youngsters are anointed as world-class prospects based on their national reputation alone, and it doesn't do anyone any favors.

U.S. Soccer, which loves to trumpet the fact that the United States is the only team to have qualified for all 12 U-17 tournaments, truly feels it can compete with the game's elite at this level. It has the facilities, cash and infrastructure to make up for the lack of a true soccer culture and a dearth of talent compared to the traditional powers.

But the truth is the U.S. still lags far behind the best. For instance, all 21 players on Germany' team are affiliated with professional clubs. The Yanks' squad list featured just one pro: Abdusalam Ibrahim of FC Dallas.

That said, there is no denying that the Bradenton experiment has been an unqualified success for the federation. Four members of the inaugural class in 1999 were starters on the senior team roster at last summer's World Cup (Bobby Convey, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu) and the program has since churned out promising young professionals like Eddie Johnson, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

However, even those who draw a paycheck from Soccer House will tell you that one full-time training academy is not nearly enough. There needs to be a dozen or more Bradentons, and until there is that elusive world title likely remains out of reach.

As disappointing as the 2007-edition U-17s were, there is plenty of time for a couple of its players to eventually surface at the pro level.

The best prospects from this squad are keepers Lambo and Zac MacMath, and right back Sheanon Williams. Defensive midfielder Danny Wenzel was touted in some quarters as the team's top talent, but he had an absolute shocker in Korea. Does that mean he'll never carve out a pro career? Of course not -- he still could end up being the best of the bunch. But that's the point: only time will tell how any of these youngsters will turn out.

We would be remiss if we didn't wonder about Hackworth's status following his team's quick exit. Some might think it unfair to judge the coach based on four games. After all, he's charged with guiding a bunch of kids, not a group of seasoned professionals. But it's no secret that U.S. Soccer places a lot of importance on FIFA events at every level, and the suits have to be bitterly disappointed with the outcome in Korea.

It is notable that Hackworth's predecessor, John Ellinger, is unattached at the moment. The former Real Salt Lake coach resigned his position as the MLS club's technical director last month, and a return to the U-17s seems plausible. The fed has a habit of recycling coaches (see: Rongen, Thomas) and Ellinger just might be tempted to try to return if Hackworth gets the heave-ho.

But no matter who is in charge of the U.S. entry two years from now in Africa, lets hope the lessons learned in Korea aren't forgotten. Let's hope that next time, for their own sake, the Americans are forced to earn everything they get.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.