ABUJA, NIGERIA -- To hear those involved with this year's U.S. U-17 national team, the squad ready to take the field at the FIFA 2009 U-17 World Cup in Nigeria may be about to launch a revolution of sorts in American soccer.
"In the past, what our country's kind of been known for is sitting back and playing the counterattack," said the team's goalkeeper, Earl Edwards. "I think we're looking more to go at teams with intimidation from the start, really pressuring them up top, not sitting back and relying on our athleticism to counter."
While American youth teams -- in fact, American teams at just about all levels -- have traditionally been more likely to describe themselves as hard to play against or organized from the back, this young group seems to have little time for such mundane talk, preferring instead to attack in wave after wave and let the chips fall where they may.
The impetus behind that radical shift in paradigm is Colombian coach Wilmer Cabrera, who took over the Bradenton Academy development program two years ago after a string of underperformances in U-17 World Cups that was capped by a disappointing round of 16 exit in Korea in 2007. That U.S. team lost to the likes of Tajikistan and Tunisia in the group stage.
"He's really emphasized the attacking style," said Edwards, "especially within the last month or two, and it's something I think is really going to help our team."
The coach, a long-time Colombian international who played in two World Cups in the '90s, has revitalized the unique American youth development program at Bradenton, molding a team that boasts more than the usual quota of top-tier prospects.
"What I'm trying to do is get that confidence to the players," said Cabrera. "When you have a team that is working and they have the confidence they can play, they have to have the personality to play even, against any team. It's how I live, and how I feel about the game and my passion for the game. I give that freedom to the players to express themselves on the field with the ball, with a little bit of organization."
That aggressive style produced 12 goals in three games in the CONCACAF U-17 qualifying tournament in Tijuana back in May. The Americans never looked challenged in breezing past their group opponents, before the second round -- and a pending showdown with Mexico -- was cancelled by worries over the outbreak of swine flu.
Despite missing that regional clash, Cabrera's squad has not been pressed for warm-up options, traveling to Europe and South America multiple times this year for friendly matches. The results have generally been positive, save one lopsided 5-1 loss at the hands of Argentina before the qualifying tournament. The team even took on the Kansas City Wizards of MLS last week, putting up staunch resistance before falling 3-0.
"What I would like to do is to play against tougher teams -- faster, bigger, stronger -- some more mature teams in a professional environment," Cabrera said of the warm-up against the MLS pros. "We got exposed a little bit, but it doesn't matter the result, it's just all preparation. It's the level of the game that we need to be exposed to and the speed of the game that we need to get."
In a sampling of its other preparation matches, Cabrera's team has battled Spain to a late loss in Madrid and twice defeated African champion Gambia last month in England, where the Americans also overcame Chelsea's U-18 team. Like previous U-17 teams, most of the team lives and plays together on a daily basis at the USSF facility in Bradenton, Fla. (they also take high school classes as part of the academy). The trips are a further bonding experience for a group whose members know one another well.
"We've been together for two years, which is completely different from other teams," said defender Perry Kitchen. "Other guys are usually at professional teams doing different things and they usually gather a few weeks before the World Cup comes around. We've been playing together and seeing each other every day for about two years, so I think everybody knows everybody's strengths and weaknesses."
Though it created the cohesion that is possibly the team's greatest strength, the residency approach has also taken a toll this group, as three noteworthy players who left residency earlier in the year will not feature at the World Cup. Former standouts Charles Renken, Joseph Gyau and Sebastian Lletget were all left off the final roster.
Renken is still recovering from a serious knee injury suffered in the spring. Lletget (who trains with West Ham United's academy in England) and Gyau (who has been practicing with the USL's Vancouver Whitecaps) apparently were unable to reconcile their professional itineraries with the national team's preparatory schedule.
"It's part of the game," Cabrera said. "You're always going to miss some players. It could be for injuries, some others because they're not ready, and some others simply because they don't want to come over here. It's part of the normal process, but I'm really happy with the team and with the group we have today."
While the absence of three of this cycle's most talented players surely will be felt somewhere along the line in Nigeria, Cabrera still has a deep and talented pool of young players to choose from in attempting to improve on the Americans' best-ever fourth place finish at the U-17 World Cup.
"I think we have a strong chance on improving on that," said Edwards, "and we're hoping to prove it to the rest of the world."
At a position of traditional strength for the U.S., starting goalkeeper Earl Edwards has the raw skills to become the next in a long line of quality shot-stoppers. His precocious size made basketball his first love. But now, at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, the Southern California native hopes to emulate Tim (not Dwight) Howard and become an international star on the pitch.
"You hope you don't get beat," said defender Kitchen. "But if you do get beat, you feel confident with him back there in the net."
Edwards is among the players who has blossomed the most during his two-year stint at Bradenton, and he is anxious to show his wares at the World Cup, with an eye toward landing a professional contract overseas. Rounding out the goalkeeping corps are Spencer Richey, an experienced backup from fabled Washington state youth club Crossfire Premier, and Keith Cardona of the New York Red Bulls Academy.
Two years together at Bradenton have molded the defense into an increasingly cohesive unit. Twin towers Jared Watts and Eriq Zavaleta manned the middle for much of the qualifiers, intimidating smaller attackers and adding an aerial threat to the U.S. attack as well. Watts can also play in midfield, with Kitchen sliding into the center from the right-back position. Tyler Polak seems to have made the left-back spot his for a group that leads what Kitchen calls a team effort.
"We have one job, and that's to keep the ball out of the net," said Kitchen. "I don't think it's necessarily just the back four and the goalie as the defenders. This team likes to defend as a unit and win the ball together."
If this team has a large potential weakness that could be exposed in Nigeria, it may be a lack of pace in the back. The American defenders were largely unchallenged in qualifiers, but when faced with speedy attackers, especially down the middle of the field, the lanky American central defenders were sometimes caught a step behind.
To help remedy that lack of foot speed against faster attacks, Cabrera may call on all-purpose defenders Boyd Okwuonu and Zachary Herold, who can play anywhere across the back line and bring a dose of athleticism to the table.
The attacking corps ranks among the deepest in memory for an American U-17 team, though the absences of Renken, Gyau and Lletget mean Cabrera will have fewer options in the midfield.
Those absences have also simplified the midfield picture significantly, as Alex Shinsky and Nick Palodichuk look like firm starters on the flanks. The duo holds its own on offense and defense, solidifying the midfield, though they lack the spectacular attacking ability of those missing options. Cabrera hopes that offensive flair will come instead in the form of Carlos Martinez, who has been used as a late-game attacking option and could also see extensive time on the left of midfield.
The central midfield pairing of Marlon Duran and Luis Gil has jelled over the past year, and they provide defensive toughness and attacking guile. At 5-foot-4, the diminutive Duran is a hard-nosed ball-winner in the mold of Chris Armas, while Gil, a playmaker who has been linked to Arsenal, has garnered as many plaudits as any of the team's other stars for his technical skill.
Will Packwood is the only non-residency player who was willing to put in the time and effort ahead of the Cup to make this team; he attends the academy run by Birmingham City of the English Premier League. At 6-foot-3, Packwood serves as a wild card who brings an alternative look to the attack.
The cream of the crop at forward is undoubtedly Georgia native Jack McInerney, who outshone his higher-profile teammates in Tijuana, leading the team with five goals -- most of them of the spectacular variety. McInerney has since trained in Holland and will be looking to make the permanent jump to Europe with a good showing at the World Cup.
His strike partner is likely to be Stefan Jerome, another talented player of whom much is expected. Andrew Craven saw extended time in qualifiers, as well, competing with Gyau for the third forward spot. Having stepped up his game at a good time by coming on in recent friendlies, he is likely to feature even more prominently in Nigeria.
|U.S. U-17 men's schedule
U.S. vs. Spain
Sani Abacha Stadium; Kano, Nigeria
2 p.m. ET, ESPNU, ESPN360.com
U.S. vs. Malawi
Sani Abacha Stadium; Kano, Nigeria
11 a.m. ET, ESPNU, ESPN360.com
U.S. vs. UAE
Gateway International; Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria
10 a.m. ET, ESPNU, ESPN360.com
Reserves Victor Chavez, Juan Agudelo and Dominick Sarle have shown their own flashes and scored a number of goals when given a shot over the past few months, assuring that Cabrera will not be starved for attacking options, though he will have a task on his hands in choosing which to use in different situations.
The embarrassment of offensive riches on display for this team makes Nigeria the potential forum for a U.S. coming-out party staged by a young squad playing attractive soccer centered on a high-powered attack. If the Americans can live up to their ambition as an aggressive, goal-getting juggernaut and perform under pressure -- which surely they will face along the way -- Cabrera and Co. could find themselves at the top of the heap in Africa come mid-November.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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