When it comes to the U18 Men’s National Team, it’s all about taking the long view.
After all, the 18s are comprised of players eligible for the 2015 U20 World Cup cycle, meaning the international competition the players get now will – at least ideally – accelerate their development and prepare them for a World Cup qualifying tournament.
Sometimes that means coming away from trips empty handed, at least from a results perspective, is far from the end of the world, as it’s more about developing a style of play, building team chemistry and learning hard lessons now.
That’s exactly what happened during the U18s trip to Europe at the end of March, as the team posted a 0-2-1 mark in three games against France and Romania.
“The results weren't ideal but it was great to be back with the team,” forward Ben Spencer told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “The team has a lot of talent and a lot of potential. It's always an honor to play with the national team and great to play alongside this talented group of players.”
The trip opened in difficult fashion, with a humbling 4-0 defeat at the hands of France on March 19 – although the performance wasn’t as bad as the result indicates.
“We felt like we weren’t really outplayed but we just made silly mistakes,” defender Suliaman Dainkeh told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “We let in three goals in the span of ten minutes in the first half, a lack of concentration. The first five minutes we could have easily gone up 2-0, but we didn’t take our chances.”
It was more of the same in a 1-1 draw against Romania on March 22 in the second game of the trip, as the U.S. looked like the better side for long stretches of the game, dominating possession and creating scoring chances they failed to finish off. In the last game of the trip on March 24, they lost 2-0, with Spencer picking up a red card in the first half.
Results are the easiest way to measure success, but head coach Javier Perez used the trip as an opportunity to continue to preach and impress his preferred style of play on the 18s.
“He knows what he wants, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, he wants to play his way – in a 4-3-3, attacking, keeping the ball on the ground, playing attractive soccer,” Dainkeh said. “We go over basically the same thing every camp so we can get it. He wants to dictate the style of play no matter who we’re playing.”
Perez also ensures that his players have the opportunity to be tourists for at least a small chunk of trips like these and see things off the soccer field.
“We went sightseeing in Paris, which was great,” Spencer said. “We saw the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and lots of other touristy spots. We also went into Bucharest one day and toured the Palace of the Parliament. Coach Javier always makes it a point to let us experience a bit of every different place we go to which is nice.”
Trips like these are certainly vital, as it teaches young players and helps them adapt to the unique challenges of not only the international level, but also having to come together in a short amount of time and put in decent performances, something this group sees happening.
“I think, like any national team, it's difficult because we only meet a few times a year, but we are getting together a very solid core group of players,” Spencer said. “It’s all a learning process and I think we have all learned a lot about ourselves both individually and collectively on this trip.”
Added Dainkeh: “My goal is to improve in every camp, and everybody has improved, from the first camp [in 2012] with Richie [Williams], everybody has gotten better and better.”
Hopefully, the lessons learned now translate to the U20 level when it’s this group’s chance in the spotlight.
U18 MNT Roster by position:
Goalkeepers (2): Ethan Horvath, James Marcinkowski
Midfielders (8): Jacori Hayes, Romain Gall, Paul Arriola, Russell Canouse, Zachary Pfeffer, Piakai Henkel, Brian Iloski, Kellyn Acosta
Forwards (3): Jason Romero, Ben Spencer, Omar Thompson