If there’s anything obvious about CONCACAF these days, it’s that times have changed on the youth level.
There was a time not so long ago when the U.S. U17 MNT could expect a moderately difficult if eminently winnable pathway through CONCACAF to the World Cup. There was sweat, but very rarely anxiety. There’s a reason the U.S. has won this tournament three times and finished first in its group five straight years from 2001-2009. CONCACAF was slow in developing its collective youth apparatus, and the U.S. was a bully on the block. For decades, really.
CONCACAF has caught up, or at the very least it has narrowed the gap significantly.
The last two cycles are proof. In 2013, the U.S. missed qualifying for the U17 World Cup for the first time in its history, breaking a streak of 14 consecutive successful qualification cycles stretching back 28 years. In 2015, despite the services of a generational talent in Christian Pulisic, the U.S. struggled to emerge from CONCACAF and needed to ace a penalty shootout in a playoff against Jamaica just to qualify. It did, but it was a near thing.
The U.S. can no longer afford to assume qualification, if it ever did. CONCACAF has arrived, and in the visage of more than just Mexico and occasionally Costa Rica.
With that in mind, coach John Hackworth’s tactical tweaks are of the utmost importance the next two weeks in Panama. A small shift here or there could determine the difference. In 2015, then-coach Richie Williams nearly kneecapped his side by thrusting Auston Trusty into a surprise starting role at center back in the first game of the World Cup, but he also adroitly folded in late addition Brandon Vazquez, who turned out to be the team’s leading scorer. The eternal tactical yin-and-yang.
So what might Hackworth’s XI in Panama look like for Sunday’s opener against a Jamaica team the U.S. has already blown out twice, in Jamaica, this cycle? Let’s take a stab at it today.
For reference, here’s the roster first.
Roster by Position:
GOALKEEPERS (2): Carlos Joaquim Dos Santos (Benfica; Philadelphia, Pa.), Justin Garces (Kendall SC; Miami, Fla.)
DEFENDERS (5): Christopher Gloster (New York Red Bulls; Montclair, N.J.), Jaylin Lindsey (Sporting Kansas City; Charlotte, N.C.), James Sands (New York City FC; Rye, N.Y.), Arturo Vasquez (FC Golden State; Mira Loma, Calif.), Akil Watts (IMG Academy; Fort Wayne, Ind.)
MIDFIELDERS (7): George Acosta (Weston FC; Hollywood, Fla.), Taylor Booth (Real Salt Lake AZ; Eden, Utah), Christopher Durkin (D.C. United; Glen Allen, Va.), Blaine Ferri (Solar Chelsea SC; Southlake, Texas), Christopher Goslin (Atlanta United FC; Locust Grove, Ga.), Indiana Vassilev (IMG Academy; Savannah, Ga.), Adrian Villegas (Portland Timbers; Hood River, Ore.)
FORWARDS (6): Ayomide Akinola (Toronto FC; Brampton, Ont.), Andrew Carleton (Atlanta United FC; Powder Springs, Ga.), Zyen Jones (Atlanta United FC; Clarkston, Ga.), Bryan Reynolds, Jr. (FC Dallas; Little Elm, Texas), Joshua Sargent (Scott Gallagher Missouri; O’Fallen, Mo.) Timothy Weah (Paris Saint-Germain; Rosedale, N.Y.)
A few notes here.
This is the lineup that ran through the 2016 Nike International Friendlies like a knife through warm butter, and I’m not certain Hackworth has all that much inclination to rock the boat on it. It has its defensive frailties, and relying on a non-destroyer Durkin as a lone shield may present a few difficulties against the likes of Mexico in the second match. In that case, you might see Hackworth drop Ferri for the more defensive-minded Chris Goslin for more of a two-across defensive front. But in terms of building attacks from the back and giving the U.S. the best chance to actually win games, this is probably the best way to go.
If there’s one overriding positive about Hackworth’s cycle this go-round, it’s that he hasn’t out-thought himself tactically. And I don’t expect him to in Panama.
The only place I wavered was at the No. 8. Blaine Ferri, he of Solar Chelsea fame, is a quality show-running ball shuttler who did fine work this cycle as the connective tissue between attack and defense. He’s a calm head, which is good, and he quickly moves possession, which is also good, but I think his role is the more open to competition. Between Goslin and Taylor Booth, who’s a silky operator, Ferri will have to perhaps work harder to keep his gig if things go south early than most others on the roster.
The real meat of this team is in the front three, or perhaps the front four. Timothy Weah might be the best player in this entire competition sitting on the bench, and the Paris Saint Germain academy attacker, who’s already played up with the U19s, legitimately does not have a place in that front three. Ayo Akinola and Andrew Carleton are, to me, unquestioned starters, and they’re both legitimate USMNT prospects at winger, a position the U.S. rarely has any success with. Between them, St. Louis Scott Gallagher’s Josh Sargent, a guy I think is probably the best all-around pro prospect on the roster. He can’t technically move to Europe until 2018, but I think it’ll be more or less inevitable after this tournament and (assuming qualification) the ensuing World Cup later this year.
George Acosta, playing in that nominal No. 10 role, might be the most interesting player in the XI. Acosta isn’t as natural a No. 10 as players in cycles past, and certainly not like Pulisic was in 2015. That’s fine, because Acosta has all the qualities you like in a playmaker, but he can occasionally get drowned out in the noise of the attacking third and fall back into the build-up a bit. Acosta is good enough to start, and he’s good enough to change games, but suffice it to say his role is a bit more up in the air than his attacking batterymates upfield.
With this lineup, or some close approximation, the U.S. shouldn’t struggle to qualify. It’s already beaten Jamaica handily twice within the last year, and while Mexico will provide a stern test, brushing past El Salvador shouldn’t be out of the question. Whether or not the U.S. gives up goals with this formation, it’ll certainly score them. Lots of them. And that should be enough to see them through to the U17 World Cup in India later this year.