Greg Lalas
Monday September 28th, 2009

A few weeks before the United States convened for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, which kicked off last week in Egypt, I exchanged e-mails with U.S. attacking midfielder Mikkel Diskerud. "Mix," as he's nicknamed, was cautiously confident that the Americans could advance from the competition's Group of Death, which also includes Germany, Cameroon and South Korea.

"Four points," the 18-year-old Norwegian-American, who plays for Norwegian side Stabaek, said when I asked what it would take to advance from the group.

His math is spot on. But probably not for the U.S. Following the ugliness that took place in the 3-0 loss to Germany in Suez on Saturday, four points seems like a stretch. There's still a chance, of course. The U.S. might get a draw against Cameroon on Tuesday afternoon and could get a win against South Korea, but I wouldn't bet any Egyptian pounds on it.

Thomas Rongen's side wasn't only overmatched by the organized and effective Germans, but also clearly overwhelmed. This last fact, more than the result, is the most frustrating outcome for those of us who have observed American soccer for years. We thought that the U.S. had reached the point where we weren't intimidated by anyone anymore.

That was probably wishful thinking, though, based on the recent successes of the senior side -- success at the 2002 World Cup, domination of Mexico and CONCACAF, the Confederations Cup final appearance -- rather than on the reality on the ground.

That reality is, young American players aren't playing. They are either college kids who don't get good, regular competition or future prospects with Major League Soccer teams who rarely see the field. Brek Shea is an exception, having played some decent minutes for FC Dallas. The three players on the current U-20 roster who are on the books at European clubs are also mostly reserves, with Diskerud the notable exception. Mix has seen the field consistently and even earned a Champions League qualifying start against Valencia in July.

How is this group of greenhorns not expected to be intimidated when they step on the field against a collection of pros? Add to that the unforgiving eyes of TV cameras and European scouts, and the 3-0 loss was perfectly understandable.

The reaction was swift and brutal. Predictions of further humiliations quickly piled up. Doomsday scenarios sprouted up about the future of U.S. soccer. Some argued that the dismantling of MLS' reserve league has done irreparable damage. Others complained that youth system is not developing the right kind of talent, i.e., American Lionel Messis and Cristiano Ronaldos.

My reaction? Calm down. I'm not really sure where all the hand-wringing comes from. After all, U-20 defending champion Argentina didn't even qualify for the tournament, but no one is worried about the future of Argentine soccer. (They're more worried about the future. Paging señor Maradona -- your one-way ticket to Havana is ready for pick up.)

So the U.S. U-20 team is not that strong this year -- so what? It doesn't mean American soccer's future is in trouble. The sport goes in cycles, especially for the non-powerhouses, like the U.S., which often take quantum leaps forward when a Golden Generation comes along (think: Hungary's Magnificent Magyars of the 1950s, Colombia's Carlos Valderrama-led side of the late '80s and early '90s, Portugal in the early '00s).

The U.S. has had a Golden Generation of sorts recently, starting with the Landon Donovan/DaMarcus Beasley U-20 side in '01 through the Jozy Altidore/Michael Bradley side of '07. And the senior team is reaping the benefits of that.

Most people believe the current team lacks a standout with the potential to be another Landon or Jozy. We'll see. I see big upsides for a few, namely, Diskerud, Dilly Duka and Gale Agbossoumonde. Will they lead the U.S. to the World Cup? No. But they could someday become integral parts of the program.

Ultimately, the U-20 tournament is not an arbiter of future success. For one thing, the best teenagers don't even show up. For example, Altidore isn't in Egypt, though he's eligible. Same goes for several world superstars, including Arsenal's Theo Walcott and Inter Milan's Mario Balotelli, both of whom could suit up for England or Italy, respectively.

Ultimately, maybe the fact that the U.S. now has age-eligible players considered too valuable to their clubs to be called in says more about the health of U.S. youth development than anything. When is the last time the U.S. has had that luxury?

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