2016 was a dark year for the U.S. men’s program. For all its strides under Klinsmann, whatever those ultimately were, the senior team seemed to regress into a shell of reactivity and pessimism toward the end of the year. Klinsmann teased his critics with a genuine spell of sensical lineup management in the Copa America, leaning on the same XI until circumstance – card accumulation and injury – robbed him of that luxury. This was, in some ways, the catalyst for Klinsmann to dip back into his managerial malaise as The Mad King of bizarre tinkering. He never recovered.
The more well-known facet of U.S. Soccer’s year was the senior team’s cratering in World Cup qualifying late on; the 2-1 loss to Mexico and then of course the 4-0 embarrassment in Costa Rica that cost Klinsmann his job. But underneath, the gear-teeth of development seemed to be cracking, and far more ominous portents lingered.
The year also represented the culmination of a four-year youth rotation in which the U17 MNT missed World Cup qualification for the first time ever and the U23 team missed the Olympics in back-to-back cycles for the first time since the tournament became a U23 affair in 1992. The U20 team had indeed made a historic run to the quarterfinals of the 2015 U20 World Cup, but on balance of the years it inhabited, it seemed like an anomaly.
The Olympic failure in 2016 was the back-breaker. Loaded with a handful of supposedly paradigm-altering talents like Kellyn Acosta, Matt Miazga, Jordan Morris, Emerson Hyndman and Wil Trapp, the U.S. floundered against Colombia and crashed out of the playoff. It meant a critical subsection of developing American talent would not have the Olympics to refine their steel.
It was a brutal bookend to a dismaying period in the American youth landscape. It wasn’t the results necessarily, but the things they seemed to indicate. The U.S. had been genuinely played off the field in most all of its tests against equal strength or unevenly weighted matchups, and a matriculating generation of young American players seemed unable to cope with the speed and pressure whipped up by more technically able operators. The U20 result against Colombia, a 1-0 win despite 10 men, in the 2015 World Cup knockouts was such an outlier precisely because the U.S. managed to use its own strengths to grind out a result in the face of a superior opponent. Colombia dominated that game. It ultimately didn’t matter.
All that to say that the archways to 2017 seemed to be cracked at the foundation. But it could simply be that the U.S. youth system was in an awkward molting period, and we might’ve seen the first fruits of a new form entirely.
By now, the news has carried. The U.S. U17 MNT dropped two-time world champion Mexico 4-3 on Wednesday night in World Cup qualifying in Panama. The occasion was historic because it had never happened before. The U.S. and Mexico had only met five times in this tournament since its inception in 1983, and the U.S. had never won: 0-4-1. In fact, the U.S. and Mexico hadn’t even played in U17 World Cup qualifying since 1996, and it was only a quirk in the new seeding format that allowed the two continental juggernauts to be matched in a group for the first time. For the Mexicans, expected to win this tournament by most everyone, it was their first loss at this competition in 25 matches stretching back to 2011.
The result was not won in a vacuum. Two months earlier, the U20s had done the same thing, gritting past the Mexican U20 team for a 1-0 result that was more brilliant for its graft than for its balletic grace. Unlike the U17s, the U20s had beaten Mexico in continental competition before, but it had been three decades. Not long after, the U20 MNT won the entire tournament for the first time in history.
This means, of course, the U20s and U17s beat Mexico in turns in a competition that meant something for the first time since any of those players had been alive. Beyond anything else, it’s clear this is not 2016 anymore.
There will be a lot of words spilled in the coming months about what all this means, and the ones urging caution in analysis are the ones worth tuning into. Especially at the U17 level, but also for U20s, wins in youth soccer aren’t reliable indicators of future success. They do matter, but only as byproducts of successful development elsewhere, not as means to themselves. And you can always tell when youth sides are gunning for wins over development. The easiest access point? Individual time on ball. If coaches de-emphasize individual comfort with the ball in lieu of unloading it quickly and inefficiently, a common sight among unsuccessful youth federations, then there is little point to even having a youth team. Drilling a team aesthetic is important, but it always starts with the individual. And any American who’s watched even a fractional amount of the USMNT knows individual verve is hardly the American calling card.
That’s why these two wins were not procured in a vacuum and why I think they indicate something small and yet something a bit more relevant than usual. They were not won at the expense of development. They were won because of it.
The U20s beat Mexico in Costa Rica by utilizing a brilliant defensive formula through the midfield for which Tab Ramos deserves a chapter in a coaching course. After Erik Palmer-Brown poached an early goal off a corner, the U.S. buzzed Mexico’s skillful central midfield like weaponized gnats, harrying them with the trio of Palmer-Brown, Eryk Williamson and the brilliant Tyler Adams. They won tackle after tackle, using their advantage to kick-start quick stabs into Mexico’s third. It was ruthlessly efficient, and Mexico hardly even sniffed the American goal.
The U17 match was a far more aesthetic thing. The defense wasn’t there, but we knew that about this U17 MNT, that they’d need shootouts to win big games. The key was merely scoring enough and not retreating into old, worn American tactics in big games of bunkering and hoping a modified approach was enough. Playing away from your strengths is rarely good, and credit U17 coach John Hackworth; the U.S. didn’t shy away from what it does. They played through the middle, hit quick and hard and relied on its individual brilliance. This Mexico team is really good, and the U.S. were a minute away from beating them by two goals.
The stunning thing isn’t necessarily that the U.S. beat Mexico in both occasions. Strange results happen. It’s soccer. The broader takeaway is that the U.S. deserved to win both matches. The Americans genuinely outplayed their Mexican counterparts in both games. That has literally never happened before on this scale.
The common denominator in these matches were the Development Academy kids. And there were a lot of them, a percentage north of 90. The DA is not a salve for American development, and it doesn’t replace the hours world class players inevitably spent kicking around makeshift balls in their streets with friends developing skill in unstructured environments. But after a decade, it’s clearly beginning to truly come to bear on the youth scene. Finally. This U17 team is deeper than any before it, and the individual skill isn’t something Americans are used to seeing. These U17s aren’t perfect, but damn if they’re not fun to watch. That, too, is not normal.
The biggest shift is probably one of the most overlooked; simple time on the training field. I spoke with former U.S. Soccer scout and current head of Miami super-developer Weston FC Juanca Michia recently for a story, and he said this about why the landscape seems to be shifting.
“Being in the (Development Academy) helps a lot, because we get players practicing five times a week, and a game is six. So when they go to the national team, the gap is not that big. I remember 10 years ago, we used to get players from this area who practiced twice a week, and they went to the national team and the gap was big. It was so hard to deal with the pressure.
“Now our players are more ready to go to the national team and produce. And also the mentality. And I believe it’s because we all – coaches and players – are more willing to take chances and be more ready mentally. I can see players are now more ready to go overseas and become a professional, something I didn’t see before.”
This is a significant thing. One of the biggest gaps between the American player and their global counterparts was simply time with a ball at their feet. Neymar and Reus and Dos Santos and the rest have such a deep well of tricks and ideas and outlets at their disposal because their feet and the ball have been inseparable since it was possible to wed the two. For decades, training time for Americans was segmented between other sports, and the game was to be attended on the training field a few times a week and then left there.
We’re seeing that shift, finally. The increased training demands in the DA are part of that, of course, forcing players to see that the game is a never-ending concern if you want your feet to pen prize-winning poems and not staid young adult novels.
There are miles to go, of course, but these awkward first steps into youth ascendance are not insignificant. They don’t paint the whole portrait, and there will be more setbacks and successes along the road. But don’t discount the U17 and U20 triumphs of the last few months. They could well be small bricks in a much larger, sturdier foundation.