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Dec 4, 2008

1999 U-17 squad retains special place in U.S. history

The conversations usually come on the fly.

Maybe as they sprint by one another on the pitch during warm-ups. Or if there is an extra few minutes as they walk off the field in the middle of a sea of players after a game. But MLS stars Kyle Beckerman and Landon Donovan still talk about that team, usually smiling and laughing, all these years later.

Back in 1999, U.S. soccer put together the first U-17 national residency squad. It was an experiment, if you will, a European-style training center, set up in Bradenton, Fla. The mission? Resurrect the slumping game here. Progress for the U.S. national teams, at times slowly, has followed.

However, that team provided a launching pad for some of today's top American players. "For me, personally, residency was like a dream come true," said Donovan. "Just to be able to play with guys like that on a daily basis. That team was special in a lot of ways: the way we acted, the way we trained, the way we treated each other. Everything was done the right way.

"I've had a lot of great memories, but not a lot compare to that. It was soccer at its purest form. You played for the love of the game, to fight for the guy next to you; you feel cohesion, like you were working for the same thing. It was one of the best feelings in life."

Players from places like Littleton, Colo., Crofton, Md., and Jericho, N.Y., were shipped to Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy (now IMG), where they lived together in dorms, trained, went to school and traveled the world for games and tournaments.

"Nothing had been done like that before, so, yeah, I think it was a risk," said L.A. Galaxy keeper Steve Cronin, who played on the team. "It was definitely different -- going away, waking up at 5:30 a.m. to go to school, not having mom's cooking, room checks. I hated those; I thought they were kind of intrusive. But I had never seen kids play so well. It was pretty cool."

Still, coming off the U.S. team's disastrous showing in the '98 World Cup, the U-17 squad had to earn its respect from world soccer powers like Italy, Germany and Brazil. It wasn't easy. At tournaments, teams from different countries often ate meals together at hotels. Donovan remembers other sides snickering at the U.S. when the Americans walked in the room. "It was petty and immature. There was a disrespect," Donovan said. "But once we stepped on the field we knew who we were. We took a lot of pride in that we were well-prepared, and we played with a chip on our shoulder; that was a great combination."

"These teams had guys signing pro contracts," Beckerman adds. "We were playing for respect, to show that we have good soccer, too. We didn't want to be doormats."

Playing for pride, for their country, a team that also included Bobby Convey, DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu ended up finishing fourth at the U-17 World Cup in New Zealand that year. The U.S. finished atop of Group A in the first stage, beat Mexico 3-2 in the quarterfinals and then lost to Australia on penalty kicks in the semifinals. No other U.S. team has had a better showing at a World Cup on either the junior or senior level. (The U-17 World Cup, which began in 1985, is held every two years.)

The U-17 residency program has become a vital part of developing young U.S players. Today, the side is filled with potential stars like Joseph-Claude Gyau, Stefan Jerome and Charles Renken. But it all started back in '99 with the first class.

"Personally, out of all my bio stuff, that's one of the things I'm most proud of," said Real Salt Lake midfielder Kenny Cutler, who played on that team. "It's something I still think about 10 years later. It was kind of like an experiment. Maybe if we hadn't done so well, they wouldn't have continued the program, but we had so much success."

Twenty players made up the first U-17 roster, with many playing in that World Cup. Here's a look at where all 20 of them are now:

Nelson Akwari, defender -- Just finished up his first year with the USL-1 Charleston Battery. Akwari played for the Charlotte Eagles in USL-2 last season. He attended UCLA and went on to play in MLS for New York (2002), Columbus (2003-04) and Real Salt Lake (2005-07).

DaMarcus Beasley, midfielder -- Joined Scottish side F.C. Rangers in 2007 in a transfer from PSV Eindhoven. Beasley is one of only three Americans to play for the storied Glasgow club (Maurice Edu, Claudio Renya). Beasley is a fixture with the U.S. national team and has played in the past two World Cups.

Kyle Beckerman, midfielder -- Beckerman's spirited play and, of course, his dreadlocks have helped him become the face of Real Salt Lake. Only 26, Beckerman is an MLS vet. He broke into the league as a Nike Project-40 player in 2000 with the now-defunct Miami Fusion. Beckerman made his first appearance with the U.S. national team last year and was named to the MLS All-Star reserve list.

Danny Bolin, midfielder -- Played one year for Wake Forest, before transferring to the Air Force Academy. Bolin graduated from the Academy in 2005 and is flying the UN-1N Twin Huey helicopter at Yokota Air Force Base in Japan. He was recently promoted to aircraft commander. "The people, the mission and the flying is what I enjoy most," Bolin said. "Flying is a blast. There's always something to learn, and the camaraderie, physical challenge and task management are always something to look forward to."

Filippo Chillemi, midfielder -- Paging Dr. Chillemi. Chillemi is set to graduate from medical school in March. He's working at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn and will begin his residency, likely at another hospital, in July.

Chillemi hopes to specialize in orthopedic or general surgery. After graduating from Notre Dame in 2004, Chillemi played for three pro teams in Italy in '05, including Empoli, then a Serie B side. An ankle injury ended his career. Ironically, Chillemi first injured his ankle at Notre Dame, when teammate Greg Martin landed on his ankle during practice. Martin also played on the first U-17 residency team.

"That bastard [Martin] ended my career," Chillemi said jokingly. But, seriously, Chillemi has great memories of the U-17 experience. "The whole experience was sick," he says. "To share the field with guys like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley is an honor itself. It's just cool to be the first team."

Jordan Cila, forward -- Works as an interest rate derivative analyst for Goldman Sachs in New York. Cila finished up his three-year MLS career with the Red Bulls in 2006. He joined Goldman Sachs in March. "This has been dramatically different," said Cila, who graduated from Duke with a sociology degree in '04. "I put in probably 20 times more hours than I did on the soccer field. But this is a career I will have the rest of my life. It was too appealing to continue playing soccer."

Bobby Convey, midfielder -- Has struggled the past two years with Reading F.C. of the English Premier League, battling through a variety of injuries, although he played a prominent role in helping the Royals gain promotion to the English Premier League in 2006. In 2000, Convey became the youngest player ever signed by MLS, shortly after D.C. United drafted him. He also made his first appearance with the full U.S. national team that year.

D.J. Countess, goalkeeper -- Is recovering from a wrist injury sustained with Atletico Tigre -- an Argentine premier team -- in October 2007. During a pregame workout, Countess fractured the scaphoid bone in his right wrist while stopping a ball with a closed fist. He underwent surgery and expects to return in January. According to Countess, Tigre and other Argentine teams, MLS clubs and European sides are interested in him. "It's been extremely difficult not being able to play," Countess said. "But, quite frankly, I've always responded well to injuries. I'm hungry and ready to show myself again."

Steve Cronin, keeper -- Cronin, who played collegiately at Santa Clara, started 22 games for the L.A. Galaxy this season, his third in the league. He was 6-9-6 with a 2.05 goals against average.

Kenny Cutler, midfielder -- Just call him the survivor. Cutler entered Real Salt Lake's 2008 preseason as a non-roster invitee, but made the team. He played in 11 games for Salt Lake this year, including five starts. It's not the first time Cutler has beaten the odds. He began his career in Salt Lake as an undrafted developmental signing in 2005.

Landon Donovan, striker -- The best player America has ever produced? Maybe. One thing's for sure -- Donovan is having the season of his life. He led MLS with a career-high 20 goals. However, his days lighting it up in L.A. with David Beckham may be over soon. Donovan could return to Germany to play after this season. He's had two stints with Bayer Leverkusen. Bayern Munich is one team said to be targeting Donovan.

Adolfo Gregorio, midfielder -- Owns a soccer store called Pro Soccer in Modesto, Calif. Gregorio said he plans on opening another one in Fresno with his partners. "I'm lucky," Gregorio said. "People seem to value what I say and the equipment I suggest because of my experiences. This [store] and club soccer is pretty much my life right now."

Gregorio helped UCLA to the College Cup championship in 2002. The Colorado Rapids selected him with the 15th overall pick in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft. However, Gregorio chose to play for Darlington in England's League Two. After a year, Gregorio returned to the U.S. to sign with Real Salt Lake. However, he was released by RSL in '06 and returned home to start his business.

Bryan Jackson, midfielder -- Works as a sports performance coach for Velocity Sports Performance in New York.

Jackson lived in England for four years, before returning to the U.S. in May. He played for Genoa in Italy's Serie B in 2000, and then moved on to teams in Holland, Belgium and England. Jackson retired in 2006.

Kellen Kalso, defender -- Works as a manager for Hillstone Restaurant Group. Kalso just transferred from Miami to Kansas City. He played at Michigan State from 2000 to 2003 and worked in commercial real estate for three years after graduating. "My goal is to own my own restaurant one day," Kalso said. "It's just a great opportunity to deal with so many different people every day. No two days are ever the same."

Greg Martin, midfielder -- Is a director of loyalty and commercial sales for Stream Energy in Dallas. He played at Notre Dame from 2000 to 2003.

Oguchi Onyewu, defender -- Is playing for Belgium champs Standard Liege. Onyewu could return to the English Premier League when his contract with Standard Liege ends after this season. He played on loan for Newcastle United in 2007. Onyewu has been a regular with the U.S. national team since 2004.

Raul Rivera, defender -- Has played the past six seasons for the Fresno Fuego of the USL's Premier Development League. Rivera also played briefly with Chivas USA in 2004, before being released. "I'm still looking for an opportunity," Rivera said "One last shot. I'm getting older [26]." Rivera, living in Fresno with his wife, Celina, works as a mechanic for Sportsmobile. "It's kind of like 'Pimp My Ride,' but for RV's," Rivera said. "We can pretty much do anything to them."

Matt Roberts, midfielder -- Is living in Hillsborough, N.J. Roberts declined to be interviewed for this story.

Seth Trembly, defender/midfielder -- Played for his hometown Colorado Rapids from 2000 to 2004, moving on to Real Salt Lake (2005-06). Trembly sat out '06 with a torn ACL and moved on to Montreal of USL-1 the following year. Trembly is living with Beckerman and training with Real Salt Lake. He is not under contract, but hopes to land a deal in the MLS or overseas. "I'm only 26, I'm still young," Trembly said. "Personally, I think I still have some things to accomplish. I can still play."

Alex Yi, defender -- Hamstring injuries forced Yi to retire from MLS in April. He joined FC Dallas in 2005 after spending two years with Royal Antwerp in Belgium. Yi, who played two years at UCLA (2000-01), is finishing his bachelor's degree at the University of Dayton, where he's also an assistant men's soccer coach. His major is undeclared.

"I was thinking of majoring in business or economics," Yi said. "Then [coaching] came up. I absolutely love the game and, even when I stepped away, I saw myself coaching a club team or something. I've been thrust into this at Dayton and I'm enjoying it. Coaching is something I definitely would like to pursue."

John Ellinger, coach -- Is now FC Dallas's top assistant coach under Schellas Hyndman. Ellinger, 57, spent eight years with U.S. soccer and became Real Salt Lake's first head coach in 2004. He was fired in May 2007 and left in September 2007 after a short stint as the club's technical director.

Justin Rodriguez covers USL, NCAA and youth soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at rodriguezespn@yahoo.com.

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