Under-17s, Luis Gil and the Maturity Quagmire

The US Under-17s are out of the FIFA U-17 World Cup after a tough loss to Italy.   I saw less of their World Cup play than I wanted, but a few thoughts remain hard to shake.

Maturity is over-rated – at least in soccer.

The game against the UAE reminded me most why watching the occasional youth game is so refreshing: even in a pressure situation the ‘kids’ tend to play with an offense-first mindset and a penchant for flair that will very likely (and sadly) be taught out of them in the pro ranks.   Our challenge is finding a way to add the professionalism, strength, speed of play/thought that is required to make the next step without squelching the joy of the game.   Not many countries have acheived this…

Possession soccer is not out of our reach.

Again, the UAE game was my primary taste of the U-17s this time around, but the way in which they controlled the ball – and thus the game – was impressive, even if the result was closer than it should have been with better finishing.   Luis Gil appears to be the real deal (as much as an almost 16 year old can be) and was able to add stability and an smart attacking mindset.   The full National team doesn’t have a pure center mid with those qualities – really Claudio Reyna (though often deeper sitting) was the last player that really was close to this at the senior level.    It will be interesting to see if we can add more of this to our game given our current roster.

Unfinished business.

At all levels, we seem to struggle to find a consistent list of “finishers.” If the amount of opportunities that could have  turn into goals – but didn’t – for the U-17s in this tournament show us anything – we may not have the answers coming soon.  At the Senior team level , Charlie Davies shows a nose for the goal (and is now facing a long recovery from his terrible accident) and Jozy Altidore has the potential, but not the playing time.   Most of our other talented forwards seem to be stuck in that perpetual midfield/forward dilemma – Landon, Dempsey, Adu, etc., or not making the mark we need them to make – Cooper, Johnson (who?), etc.   Given that, it’s not a surprise Conor Casey got time, maybe Robbie Findley is next?

What next for our talented youth?

Luis Gil is getting most of the attention, and (from my limited viewing) rightly so.   But for Luis and other talented players – the question becomes “what now?”   Luis had a trial with Arsenal, suggests MLS could be an option (what else would you say?) and has ignited a debate over what is best for helping a young star reach his potential.   While it’s hard to imagine there is a “right” answer, the idea of playing at Arsenal’s youth development system sure is appealing.  The style they play, their tendency to throw youth in the mix and their strong youth development all make strong arguments.   The question revolves around the demand (especially for a creative midfielder) for those roles – which will feature some cut throat competition.   If you are to believe that an American has the odds stacked a bit against them going in in a European team – would a smaller club offer more opportunities for success?    For slightly older players coming into the pro-ranks (Dempsey, Parkhurst, etc.), I think MLS is a good option – but without a developmental league, and with minimal development of the youth teams – one most wonder if it is the right option for some of the U-17s.    We best start to get more creative with development options for these players.  Could be a large Mexican (or other Latin) team play a role?  Luis (as this example goes) has a Mexican heritage, and some teams have very well established development systems.   If only there was a Mexican team that also had an American connection…   hmmm.   We need to get over our fixation on just a few leagues being worth the attention of our youth.

Wilmer Cabrera deserves some credit.

Coaches can help build confidence (we made it to the second round and won twice in a row when we needed it, and were within a missed penalty of a better Italian result) and style (see possession commentary)… but cannot take the field and put many of those wasted opportunities in the net.  Perhaps the refrain we hear so frequently that “American coaches” are needed for our US teams is true.  Maybe they don’t always have to be just North American.

Well, Wilmer’s (and my) team is out… but his home country (Colombia) is still there.  I know who I am rooting for.


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