This was supposed to be a different type of United States U-20 team. Managed by US Soccer legend Tab Ramos, the team has more professional players than its predecessors and is in the process of integrating a universal style advocated by Jürgen Klinsmann.
The US crashed out of the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup with an embarrassing 4-1 defeat to Ghana, a defeat that could have been much worse had it not been for the stellar play of Southampton’s American goalkeeper Cody Cropper.
This United States team, filled with players who have come from Major League Soccer academies or turned professional at a young age, did not perform at the level of its predecessors, most notably 2005 and 2007 when Argentina and Brazil were defeated respectively by the USA at the Group Stage of this event.
Perhaps some of this owes itself to the ongoing transition between player development via the college system or US Soccer/IMG National Academy in Florida and Academy teams run by MLS, USL and NASL sides as well as other elite youth clubs who are part of the US Soccer Development Academy setup.
The most striking thing about the US side under Ramos that was not apparent under his predecessor Thomas Rongen is a tactical naivety among the young squad. Whether that has to do with the manager himself or the traits of the players and the training they are receiving at the club level is difficult to decipher. For all the abuse the American college system has gotten from pundits including myself, we have seen some very strong US youth teams in the past that were dominated by players in college. Those teams were almost universally stronger than this current one that is dominated by professional players.
US performances at the youth level have gotten progressively worse the past few years even as the sport has become more and more popular in this country. For years, the US outperformed expectations in FIFA youth tournaments, often advancing deep in these events and producing players that caught the eyes of European scouts. But recently, the opposite has been the case as high expectations have led to poor results.
The agreement between Major League Soccer, the nation’s top division and the USL PRO, the nation’s third division, regarding loanee players and player development could hold the key to future success for the US. Currently it appears many of the MLS based US players don’t get enough game time or real tactical training to make the type of impact on the youth level, which is quite frankly expected at this point given the evolution of the sport in the US.
USL PRO will have a key role in developing many of the next generation of US players, giving that league some relevance and also getting youngsters some important playing time in matches that are competitive and meaningful. MLS youngsters have often been relegated to reserve matches, which quite honestly aren’t terribly competitive or to cup competitions.
US Soccer’s commitment to player development cannot be questioned. But the methods that the national federation have used through the years have been questionable and often times counter-productive.
I hold out great hope that the MLS/USL PRO partnership will help elevate some of the issues we have seen with recent U-20 teams. Additionally, some tactical training should be a requirement for all youngsters currently in the system.