Tom Rongen's U-20 team produced an impressive unbeaten record on its tour of North West England last week. The hopefuls trying to make it to Egypt 2009 for the next U-20 World Cup made light work of Bolton Wanderers reserves at the Reebok Stadium in a 2-0 victory, and then found another gear to defeat Manchester United reserves 2-1 at Carrington Training Ground.
A number of players left a positive impact with club officials and scouts and, more important for the U.S, showed that technically they can match some of England's best talent.
Rongen was pleased with the team's effort but was cautionary in his appraisal, "Given we arrived on Tuesday and only carried three players from the last squad, it was a good effort. The key to our victories was our organization and mental strength, but I'm still searching for players and team identity."
Rongen went on the add that despite the reversal of fortunes from the side's recent trip to Portugal, he is still far from certain of the squad he will take to Trinidad and Tobago for the World Cup qualifiers.
"We still have a lot of positions up for grabs, there are only two guaranteed names, Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore," said Rongen. "After that I just don't have the big names like in previous competitions, this squad's strength lies in its collective spirit, but that can take us places too."
Against the Bolton reserves, Brian Perk didn't have a serious save to make, and given the U.S played nearly an hour of soccer with only 10 men, after Kyle Davies received a straight red card, the team worked well as a unit despite only having met the day before.
The game turned on the introduction of forward Felix Garcia. The Bolton defense could not handle Garcia's movement, leading to a penalty on 50 minutes that Jorge Flores converted. Chris Agorsor scored the second after more good work down the right wing by Garcia.
Given the varying fitness levels of the players due to the different parts of the season they were in, be it early preseason for college players, or the end of the season for the footballers at pro clubs, the team was mentally and physically sharp the following day against Manchester United reserves.
The quality of the opposition and United's physical presence suggested the game might be a mismatch as the U-20's were immediately on the back foot, but they simply weren't fazed. They visibly grew during the first half, containing United to a few ineffective long-range efforts.
In the second half, the U-20s outplayed Manchester United reserves, a team containing Chris Eagles and the widely tipped Craig Cathcart. United didn't have any answers to the touch, vision and aggression of Garcia. He brought Peri Marosevic and Flores into the game in dangerous areas and was physically dominant.
Marosevic opened the U-20's account after good work on the left wing by Flores. Eagles responded for United with 15 minutes to go, but it was the U.S that continued to force the game. The U.S. deservedly scored the winner just inside the final whistle when Marosevic reacted quickest to Ike Opara's flick inside the penalty box.
Player ratings (on a scale of 1-10)
The performances of the back four were a positive for the U-20s, with little getting past Opara and Davies. Ideally one of them would play alongside a better ballplayer; out wide Sheanon Williams was the strongest full back.
Bill Hamid, 6 -- The D.C. United Academy goalkeeper has great presence and shot stopping ability, needs to refine his hand and foot skills.
Brian Perk, 6 -- Perk didn't have much to do against Bolton but he marshals his defenders well and is technically sound.
Taylor Kemp, 6 -- The high school player held his own in both games and has good technical ability. He still looks a little green but has a future at this level as he develops.
Ike Opara, 6.5 -- Opara is a stopper in the Sol Campbell mode, and physically he is intimidating and very little gets past him. He handled the pressure very well.
Kyle Davies, 6.5 -- His English footballing education is showing through. Davies is a little more street-smart than some of his teammates and is a burgeoning "hard-man."
Sheanon Williams, 7 -- The right back is a superb athlete and carries himself like a veteran. Reliable and always looking to contribute in attack.
Richard Balchan, 6.5 -- Performed well in midfield and defense and is a good athlete; his utility and strong communication are positives.
The team had a nice blend of enforcers and creative players. Garcia and Flores stood out as difference-makers, they didn't flatter to deceive and showed creativity in dangerous areas of the field. However, the team was not as dangerous out wide.
Jorge Flores, 7 -- The best performer in both games for the U.S. Flores is well balanced and two-footed, providing the U-20s with a true playmaker.
Matt Kassel, 5 -- Kassel did not put a foot wrong in either game, but did not stand out on offense or defense.
Alfredo Morales, 5 -- Playing for Hertha Berlin will always attract the U.S scouts but he struggled to show his European pedigree.
Greg Eckhardt, 5 -- Like Kassel, put in competent performances and didn't put a foot wrong, but will probably have to show Rongen a little more.
Jose Altamirano, 6 -- Put in a Paul Scholes-style performance against Manchester United; possesses tight control, vision and is dynamic.
Zarek Valentin, 5.5 -- Combined well with Williams against Manchester United and offers good options in attack and defense on the right flank.
Derek Markheim, 5 -- Markheim got only 45 minutes but showed a decent touch and did himself credit.
Marosevic stood out as a natural striker; he was willing to put himself in dangerous positions and was making good choices even when he did not find the net. The forward line needs a little more speed and another forward with pedigree.
Peri Marosevic, 6 -- Missed a number of chances against Bolton but never hid or lost confidence. A natural forward with a good physical presence.
Chris Agorsor, 5.5 -- Called in at the last minute, Agorsor adapted well. He showed great pace and proved a handful against Manchester United and Bolton.
Felix Garcia, 7 -- A natural talent, Garcia along with Flores made strong impressions in England. Offers quality up top at forward.
Billy Schuler, 5.5 -- Like Markheim, didn't have the best opportunity to shine, but his display against Bolton was competent.
Andrew Rogers is a freelance contributor to ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.