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May 30, 2009

Final U.S. U-20 squad for Egypt starting to take shape

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Freddy Adu. Josmer Altidore. Michael Bradley. The players that headlined the previous edition of the U.S. U-20 national team already had begun to make a name for themselves as professionals before they took the field for the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Members of this year's U-20 national team recognize that -- unlike that star-studded lineup -- their reputation does not precede them.

As far as the players are concerned, that's just fine.

Convening last week at a Florida minicamp, one of their last chances to come together as the 2009 U-20 World Cup (Sept. 25 to Oct. 16) approaches, veteran members of the team say they plan to prove themselves on the fields of Egypt this fall. What the current U-20 squad lacks in star power, it makes up for with its work rate, mentality and cohesion as a group.

"Maybe we don't have the big-time difference-makers like an Adu or an Altidore or a Bradley," said coach Thomas Rongen, who will lead the U.S. in a second consecutive World Cup. "But I firmly believe that this team can go as far as the last group. Our success is based in being a hard team to play against. Maybe we're a little more balanced than the last time around."

That balance begins at the back, where current UCLA goalkeeper Brian Perk, who was the youngest member of that 2007 team, mans the American goal. Perk came up big on numerous occasions in March's qualifying tournament in Trinidad and Tobago, where the Americans secured a ticket for their seventh straight edition of the biennial U-20 World Cup final.

With only a few months remaining before the competition kicks off in Africa, the rest of the defensive picture is also beginning to come into focus, anchored by a pair of players from FC Dallas. Anthony Wallace, another holdover from the 2007 team, and Kyle Davies, a recent transfer from English championship side Southampton, look to have nailed down their spots in the lineup. That tandem is complemented by former North Carolina Tar Heel Sheanon Williams, who has given up college to search for a professional club, and Ike Opara, who's still enrolled at collegiate power Wake Forest.

The picture in midfield for Rongen's team is still a bit cloudier. Jared Jeffrey, a rugged defensive midfielder who is on the books of Club Brugge in Belgium, appears to have tied down one of the central spots. In a more offensive role, Rutgers product Dilly Duka proved a pleasant surprise during qualifying, and now looks like a sure thing for Egypt, along with the versatile Brek Shea, another member of the FC Dallas contingent, who is missing the camp to remain with his professional team. Also firmly in the mix are MLS players Jorge Flores of Chivas USA and Danny Cruz of the Houston Dynamo.

The camp roster draws seven players from MLS, three from foreign clubs, and eight from the college ranks. The group also includes a player still in high school, and the unattached Williams. Rongen says looking at a variety of players from a wide range of backgrounds is essential in crafting the best possible team from a large and diverse player pool.

"We have a core group of players," said Rongen. "But we will continue to push the envelope in looking at players that we think can help the team. Particularly a few of those who are playing in MLS right now, and are playing well."

One such addition is midfielder Gerson Mayen of Chivas USA, who was left off the qualifying roster in March. Mayen, among the early MLS league leaders in assists, has been recalled to the U-20s after a blazing start to the MLS season.

Another relatively new face is that of Guillermo Torres, the brother of full national team midfielder Francisco Torres, who plays for Pachuca in Mexico's First Division. The younger Torres, said to be linked to Pachuca as well, has been called in for his first camp at this level, as he finishes up high school in Texas.

Finding the right pieces to complement that core group may be the key to putting a successful team on the field in Egypt. In qualifying, Rongen's squad went undefeated through the group stage to lock up its place in Egypt. But against tougher competition during the final stage, when Rongen experimented more with his bench, the Americans could only squeak past Trinidad and Tobago on penalties, before falling to Costa Rica in the final, 3-0.

To address the potential lack of quality depth, Rongen is also taking a look at defender Jose Gonzalez, a reserve for Mexican team Atlante, and midfielder Alfredo Morales, who plays in the youth system of Hertha Berlin of the German Bundesliga. Helping the new players integrate quickly into the team is largely up to the veterans of this U-20 cycle, says forward Peri Marosevic, who leads the team with five goals in 10 caps at this level.

"Every camp, we come together and establish a bond with the guys who are there," said Marosevic, who plays for FC Dallas. "The guys that are there at most of the camps, like myself and Anthony Wallace, make sure the other guys that are there feel welcome, and that they feel comfortable in their abilities. That's our job as guys that have been on the team from the start."

Quick adaptation to a changing roster will also be important to the team's success in Egypt. At this level, players can develop rapidly, and can fall off the radar screen just as quickly. One example from the current cycle is Mikkel Diskerud, a dual Norwegian national who has leaped back into the picture for the Americans after tearing up Norway's top division this spring with his club team, Stabaek. On the other end of the spectrum, Bryan Arguez, a veteran of the 2007 World Cup, has not seen the field this year for his team, Hertha Berlin, and may have played himself out of contention for the U-20s with a sub-par display at the qualifying tournament.

National team camps also give players who have been seeing limited minutes with their clubs a chance to get on the field for competitive action. While the college players are out of season, many are playing regularly with amateur PDL teams. But with MLS disposing of its reserve league this year, most of the MLS contingent in camp are currently seeing only occasional game time, making it difficult for them to stay in top shape.

"If you don't stay after practice and get more fitness in, come this time when you have to go to camp and play a 90-minute game, your body is just not going to be able to adjust," said Cruz. "We all look forward to camps like this, because we know we're going to get together, play a few games, and enjoy actually being on the field."

Another player who has not seen much competition of late is Davies, who joined FC Dallas only a few weeks ago, having spent the past two years with Southampton's youth academy. The defender, yet to see the field in MLS, says the lack of action motivates him and his teammates -- a total of five FC Dallas players are regulars for the U.S. U-20s -- for national team camps.

"Obviously we all want to be playing, and it's tough because we're all still young players," Davies says. "But it actually makes a lot of us more hungry because the national team is the only time we get to play a full 90 minutes. So most of us, when we get that opportunity, we want to do the best we can and make the most of it."

That opportunity came in two friendly matches against regional champions Costa Rica scheduled during the weeklong camp in Sarasota. The U.S. got off to a good start in the series on Memorial Day, coming back from a goal down to defeat the Costa Ricans 2-1 in the first of two matches at the Sarasota Polo Grounds. In the rematch on May 27, the teams tied 3-3.

Fighting back from behind came as little surprise to Marosevic, who says Rongen has instilled a never-say-die attitude in the squad. Marosevic says that mindset also means that the team is looking forward to the challenge presented by a tough draw in Egypt, where the U.S. will face a group that includes European qualifying champion Germany, African runner-up Cameroon, and South Korea.

"We have a tough group ahead of us," Marosevic says. "But with the group of guys that we have, the hard work, the mentality of never quitting that Thomas Rongen has put into our head from the beginning, it's early to tell, but I feel confident about this group. You're seeing some articles already that we are underdogs, but that always gives us more motivation. I think we have a good group of guys that can take this pretty far."

To equal the performance of their predecessors, this year's team will need to make it as far as the quarterfinals, where the 2007 team somewhat disappointingly crashed out of the World Cup two years ago. If Rongen succeeds in plucking a few gems from the pool to complement the solid foundation that has been built over the past two years, this team could potentially go even further.

Brent Latham covers U.S. Soccer for ESPNsoccernet. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio, and can be reached at brentlatham@ymail.com.

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