England, U.S. U-17 teams provide hope for floundering football nations
Two teenage boys - one in the solid crimson bearing the stamp of three lions rampant, the other in American white -- swaggered into the pre match press conference at the Nehru Stadium in Fatorda. Each was likely equally confident of scripting history history - Andrew Carleton, the captain of the USA U-17 football team leading his country to only its second World Cup semifinal and Marc Guehi, taking England to its first. It won't be the first time that Carleton, and Guehi will be meeting each other, but when they step out on the floodlit field in Goa on Saturday night, it certainly will be the most significant occasion in their career so far.
The football programs of England and USA have long standing ties (even if Americans insist on calling it soccer). In the last couple of years the current U-17 squads of the two countries have met each other in four friendlies - more matches than either country has played with any other opposition. With players, coaches and staff staying and interacting in the same facilities it isn't surprising the two teams get along. "We have fantastic relations with the U.S. Our U-15s play them each year. They are respectful to us just as we are to them," says coach John Hackworth.
This is a 'special relationship' that also forms the basis of the world political hegemony. It has however not translated entirely accurately in the footballing scheme of things. Neither the England nor USA national men's football teams can claim to be bastions of footballing success. England, despite possessing the wealthiest of all professional leagues, haven't been able to rub off any of that fortune into their national team. The perennially underachieving squad that qualified for the 2018 World Cup is expected to fare better than in 2014, when they exited in the group stage, but not realistically much more. That's still a step up from the USMNT, which finds its program in disarray after failing to make the flight to Russia at all.
And as such at another point of time, such as when the two teams played all those friendlies with15-year olds, this particular match in Goa might not have mattered for much. Another year, this might have been two age group teams of middling international sides. Not on Saturday though. The England and U.S. U-17 sides that face each other in the quarterfinals of the U17 World Cup are amongst the most promising age group sides for their two countries in recent memory. And they are not the only batch of youngsters from their countries who are in a position to revolutionize the sport.
It's only been a few months since England won the U-20 World Cup for the first time in their history. That same tournament saw Josh Sargent, currently in the U-17 squad, feature in the U.S. team that reached the quarterfinals.
This is indeed a special U.S. team. One that became the first U.S. team to win a round of 16 match at a World Cup after thrashing Paraguay 5-0. At least Hackworth, who has coached four national U-17 squads in various levels over in his career - including the batch that starred DaMarcus Beasley and finished fourth in 1999 - thinks so. "This is a side that enjoys each other's company. They compete like crazy. They want to be pushed. This is probably the best team that I have had the chance to work with," he says.
The teenagers of the U.S. team are now shouldering the responsibility of lending respectability to a domestic program that is considered to be floundering. "We talked within the team," says captain Andrew Carleton about the senior side's failure to qualify for the world cup. "Our job is to bring hope back to the USA soccer system. We need people to believe there is a future in the USA system. We believe we can move on and follow a minor setback with a major comeback," he says.
If they manage to beat England, they would become the first American team to reach the final four at any FIFA world event. There are many reasons why that could be the case. Striker Tim Weah - who incidentally has trained alongside England skipper Guehi at Chelsea in the past -- is fresh off a hat-trick against Paraguay. His compatriot up front, Josh Sargent, has added four goals at the U-17 World Cup to the four he had scored at the U-20 World Cup earlier this year. They have converted 40 percent of their chances, the highest percentage of the tournament. With the exception of their final group game against Colombia, the defence has not conceded a goal. These could be disheartening statistics for most opponents.
But not for England, who look as likely to make their own maiden semi-final. "It's actually surprising considering the quality and the support we have back home that we haven't done it so far," says coach Steve Cooper. The U-17 team is integrated in a training system with even their training program viewed real time through a 360 camera by coaches at St. George's park.
England too have kept clean sheets in all but one game - a match against Mexico they won 3-2. They shrugged off the loss of talismanic striker Jadon Sancho, called back for club duty by Borussia Dortmund, by finding a new star in goalkeeper Curtis Anderson. In what was England's first goalless display, Anderson would take his side through to the quarterfinals by saving a penalty, and then scoring one himself in the shootout against Japan. It was a gritty performance. England had put 11 goals past their opponents in the group stages but were able to stick it out and do what needed to be done to get past the finish line when it counted.
Regardless of which side wins, history will be created in Goa. It remains to be seen though which youth side - both equally driven and filled with self-belief -- will be the harbinger of the change that their senior side so desperately craves.