Wilmer Cabrera's U.S. U-17 men's national team will head to the CONCACAF championships (from April 21-May 2 in Tijuana, Mexico) in excellent shape after successful tours of Chile and Spain.
Cabrera's side lifted the La Serena Cup after winning the tournament on Feb. 7 in northern Chile and narrowly lost to the host nation on its tour of Spain from Feb. 15-22.
The team is showing signs it has a defense to match that of the top-tier nations and the creativity to score against them when it matters.
Since taking over the U-17 program, Cabrera has insisted his side learn to focus on the mental aspects of the game rather than rely on physical strength and determination. On the South America tour, his philosophy came to fruition.
The team's record against the middle-ranking teams has been strong, but the performance of the squad in Chile was a turning point in executing and reacting to tactical situations as they develop on the field.
The U-17's opening-round 2-0 victory over Chile (Feb. 1 in La Serena, Chile) exemplified its game plan. Cabrera asked for a high tempo and was rewarded with goals in the second and eighth minutes.
Attacking midfielder Charles Renken was crucial in orchestrating the offense and he opened the scoring. Jack McInerney added a second goal. Both were assisted by Stefan Jerome.
The U-17s followed their coach's tactics, then indicated they had improved on defense. They had conceded eight goals in their previous three internationals but showed they've developed by shutting the game down.
Eriq Zavaleta and Jared Watts displayed a high level of concentration and have an excellent understanding with Earl Edwards in goal. In front of the back four, Luis Gil gave the defense protection and time to organize.
The side took a mental step forward against Peru on Feb. 3 at the La Serena Cup. The U.S. toughed out a 1-0 win in a very physical encounter. Both teams were evenly matched, but the U-17s were intelligent enough not to chase the game.
Cabrera's side played like a South American team and grabbed the winner from a Bryan Duran free kick after 30 minutes.
McInerney explained the mental strength has been a culmination of a year's coaching from Cabrera's staff.
"For the past year there has been a big emphasis on defense," McInerney said last week. "The coaches will play six or seven players against the back four and force them to organize and work in highly pressurized situations. It really started to pay off in Chile."
Cabrera's side played Ecuador in the last qualifying game and in the final. The U.S. team was hamstrung by early player ejections in both matches (Erik Stephenson and Watts).
In the first game against Ecuador (on Feb. 5 in La Serena) the U.S. team drew 1-1 thanks to Michael Ambrose's free kick. The side reacted well and waited patiently for the chance to level the game.
The team's next challenge was to perform as well while facing the pressure of the Feb. 7 La Serena Cup final. The U.S. proved it could with a 2-1 win over Ecuador. Despite losing Watts after 30 minutes, Cabrera's side showed good technique and mental hardness to stay in the game.
The system relies on each player's being comfortable with the ball, reading opportunities and taking them. The team personified this mantra with its opening goal.
Just before halftime, defender Perry Kitchen broke from the defense and crossed to McInerney to finish calmly. Ecuador drew level but fell behind again when McInerney converted a spot kick to win the tournament.
"We showed we could endure the pressure, get back in the games and then go on and win," Cabrera said last week. "We have asked them to be complete players; we don't insist on a particular style. In each game, there are many possibilities, and the players have to read this and adapt."
The U-17s played Spain in Madrid on Feb. 18 in the Ciudad del Futbol training center, losing 2-1 in injury time. McInerney equalized for the U.S. on another excellent combination with Jerome, but a lapse in concentration from a corner gave the hosts the win.
The late slip was a one-off issue rather than an underlying problem. The U.S.' back line of Perry Kitchen, Zavaleta, Watts and Tyler Polak are tough to get around and offer the team multiple options going forward.
The visitors then held Real Madrid's U-17 squad 0-0 on Feb. 19 at the Real Madrid training ground before an experimental team convincingly beat Rayo Majadahonda's side 4-1 on Feb. 21 at Ciudad del Futbol with goals from Jerome, Sebastian Lletget, Bobby Wood and Renken.
The team's improvement also is reflected in its growing depth. Zachary Herold can play across the back line, and Joseph Gyau provides a variety of options up front.
Cabrera has yet to settle on a left-sided midfielder, as Nicholas Palodichuk is putting pressure on Carlos Martinez's position. Christian Flores has moved into residency from Mexican side Rayados de Monterrey, and Wood and Lletget, who have played for 1860 Munich and West Ham United, respectively, did themselves credit on the tour of Spain.
The U-17 team's prestige is growing. Cabrera, a former Colombian World Cup player, has created a side with a deep knowledge of the international game, underpinned by a solid defense and creative offense.
"We are ready to become one of the bigger soccer nations," McInerney said. "We have been playing very well. Hopefully we can become one of those teams."
Andrew Rogers is a freelance contributor to ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.