Falling less than a month after the World Cup final, and devoid of headlining countries such as Spain, Argentina and Brazil, the Milk Cup is not a tournament that demanded or received much attention.
But the U.S. Under-20 national team's triumphant run in that event, which included victories over China, Denmark and host North Ireland, is still cause for (measured) optimism. The usual strengths associated with the U.S. -- athleticism, size and endurance -- remained, but the Americans were also technically better than their opponents, particularly in a 3-0 victory against Northern Ireland in the final last week.
"Players dictate how you play somewhat, and it is not always possible with our [development system] to play tactically and with possession because the system doesn't always produce players with that," U.S. coach
In the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada, a U.S. team led by
The brightness that the Milk Cup should bring to followers of the U.S. has as much to do with
In the final against Northern Ireland, Rongen made a tactical move that illustrated how having more creative players can make a difference. He replaced defensive midfielder
"We saw that [Northern Ireland] was a high-pressure team with their top six and we believed that if we could give up a little defense for some tactical savvy, we could take advantage of the space between their top six and their back four," Rongen said. "So we put Dillon in and he really helped us in the buildup and found a good rhythm to the game."
Powers was named the Milk Cup's most valuable player, but he wasn't the only one who impressed. Others included:
Agbossoumonde, like Powers, was on the 2007 U-20 World Cup team but was young and played sparingly. "Now, he has become a pro," Rongen said.
In addition, Maryland's
"We have known about Valentin's ability going forward but what is important is he is getting better and harder with his defense," Rongen said. "He and Greg have such high soccer IQs as well."
There were others who showed well, such as 16-year-old
Such a wealth of talent a little more than a year removed from the failure in Egypt, when it appeared the cupboard was barren, can be credited to U.S. Soccer's expanded search for talent. Rather than rely on the U.S. residency program or college programs to supply players, Rongen and others at U.S. Soccer scouted Europe, Mexico and elsewhere for prospects eligible to play for the U.S. Combined with the improvement of the MLS academy system and more young players bypassing college for professional opportunities abroad, it has created a deeper and better pool of players.
"We learned a lot from the last [U-20] cycle and then we went to work," Rongen said. "We realized that we had to find more players, and we did our due diligence. We went hard after some players we knew about and dug up some others we didn't know about. I think it has left us in a good place. We are about a year away [from the 2011 U-20 World Cup in Colombia] and I think that you can say we are making progress."