The United States youth national teams’ fortunes mirrored those of their senior counterparts in 2015. While the women won consistently, the men struggled.
Among the men’s teams, only the Under-20s performed close to their expected level in international competitions, with Tab Ramos’s men making a run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup before falling to eventual champion Serbia in penalties. The U-17s didn’t win a game at their World Cup, and the U-23s face a tough playoff against Colombia in order to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
The women, on the other hand, lost just twice in 22 games across the U-17, U-20 and U-23 ages. The U-20s played 13 of those, winning their fourth consecutive CONCACAF U-20 Championship to qualify for the 2016 World Cup in Papua New Guinea.
Still, it’s hard to look past the failures on the men’s side of the equation. The American women’s teams have always had, and continue to enjoy, the advantage that comes with an increased emphasis on women’s sports here, especially at the younger ages.
Here is the year in review for the U.S. youth national team programs:
The U-17 women won all three games they played, as part of a training camp in February, defeating Mexico, Canada and Japan by a combined 8-2 score. The team will play in the 2016 CONCACAF tournament in March that serves as qualifying for the next World Cup, but it didn’t have a heavy match load with the lack of competitive fixtures this year.
The U-23s played a few more, going 5-0-1 in training camps in Spain and Norway. But the U-20s were on display the most, ravaging the confederation with a 4-0-1 showing at the CONCACAF Championship in which they scored 22 goals while conceding three.
Their only losses of the year came on Jan. 27 to Bayern Munich’s senior team and June 2 to Japan, while they beat Atlético Madrid and Rayo Vallecano in October. Michelle French’s team won 10 games and drew one on the way to a 77% winning record.
The U-20 men earned some positive results at the World Cup, particularly in their 1-0 win over Colombia in the round of 16. It was a mature performance that showed the potential in the age group that U.S. staff has been lauding, but it was surrounded by shaky games such as the opener against Myanmar, in which the Americans conceded first before coming back to defeat their worst opponent of the tournament.
Individuals who stood out included goalkeeper Zach Steffen, who saved a late penalty against Colombia and kept the U-20s in the shootout against Serbia in the next round, before also joining the U-23s for Olympic qualifying. Cameron Carter-Vickers, who recently signed a new contract with Tottenham, played for all three teams, the U-17s, U-20s and U-23s; while Matt Miazga used the latter two as a springboard to the senior team. Miazga was voted as U.S. Soccer's Young Male Player of the Year.
The U.S. continues to get more professional at the youth ages, as technical director Jurgen Klinsmann continues to emphasize early exposure to the highest levels possible. The U-20s and U-23s laid the groundwork for future cycles with more training camps and matches and by moving players abroad at a decent rate, although the product on the field hasn’t caught up yet.
The list here could be pretty long. The U-17s finished last in their World Cup group, the U-20s played inconsistently despite their quarterfinal exit, the U-23s lost to Honduras in a match for automatic Olympic qualification and the U-18s finished fifth in a tournament in which they lost to Iceland and Sweden.
More than the conglomeration of results across all ages, the unifying theme has been that American teams still lack a true identity. Players panicked on the ball, resorting to long-ball tactics despite all coaches preaching to the media that they would emphasize playing through midfield and dominating games through possession.
It’s not that the U.S. played direct because of its preparation to do so—it often looked like players had hardly met one another, and their wild passes were more the result of a lack of alternative ideas. Goals on set pieces and broken plays were the norm when the Americans won, as they have been for generations.
Looking at the U-23s’ efforts in qualifying illuminates the trend well. After a perfect group stage, in which the U.S. scored 11 goals while conceding two, an organized, athletic Honduran team had little trouble against the Americans in the semifinal, winning 2-0.
When teams can match the U.S.’s athleticism, as Honduras did with its compact defense and quick center backs matching up with Jordan Morris and Jerome Kiesewetter, the Americans had no plan to break them down. It might seem as simple as blaming Klinsmann because he’s the technical director in charge of the ship, but it goes much deeper than that.
One man cannot change a development system with serious shortcomings ingrained by generations of poor practices. Sure, American teams and leagues show sporadic signs of improvement, but the rest of the world continues to evolve its approach to the game as well.
The U.S. still falls far short of global standards of player development.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Christian Pulišić
Over the past year, Pennsylvania’s Christian Pulišić has emerged as the most promising player in the U.S. system, capped by a fine individual performance at the U-17 World Cup. He saw time for Borussia Dortmund’s first team in a friendly ahead of the tournament, and his stock continues to rise both at his club and with the national team.
In October, also before the World Cup started, The Guardian named him as one of the “50 best young talents in world football.” The list also included Norway and Real Madrid rising star Martin Ødegaard, Gheorghe Hagi’s son, Ianis, and Dejan Lovren’s younger brother, Davor.
As the U.S.’s playmaker in Chile, he played multiple deadly passes from a rangy No. 10 position that his teammates often couldn’t match on the other end. Defensively, he displayed BVB’s high-pressure philosophy well, winning balls off opposition defenders and holding midfielders before they could initiate attacks.
Even after Jurgen Klopp’s departure, Pulišić continues to get opportunities to train with Dortmund’s first team under Thomas Tuchel. His name should be on American fans’ watch lists as the next U-20 cycle begins—and he could even jump to an older age group first, as soon as U.S. coaches realize his smaller frame doesn’t actually diminish his footballing abilities.
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GOAL OF THE YEAR: Mallory Pugh, U-20 women vs. Brazil
The U-20 women went from defending a corner kick in the 73rd minute of a 1-1 match against Brazil at the National Training Center Invitational to scoring the winning goal with only one player touching the ball. After she won it by blocking a cross attempt just outside her own penalty area, Mallory Pugh went on a 70-yard run that beat two defenders on the dribble and slotted her shot past the goalkeeper.
Her winning goal was a great personification of Pugh’s status as a player for the future of the U.S. women’s team, a combination of skill on the dribble, composure under pressure and the decision-making ability to leave a defender on the floor with her move inside the penalty area before scoring. Pugh won U.S. Soccer's Young Female Player of the Year honors.
WHAT’S TO COME IN 2016
The U-20 women will take part in the 2016 World Cup in November and December 2016 in the island nation of Papua New Guinea. Pugh and her teammates’ primary competition for what would be a record fourth title is Germany, which also has three to its name, and Japan, which won the NTC Invitational by winning all three games by a combined 16-0 score.
On the men’s side, the U.S. U-23s have a last-chance playoff to make the 2016 Olympics when they take on Colombia in two matches in the March international window. If it can get past Los Cafeteros, Andi Herzog’s team would qualify for just the second time since 2000 (a fourth-place finish) and the first since Beijing 2008. It remains to be seen whether Klinsmann and Herzog opt to bring U-23-eligible players like DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks for those games or keep them with the senior team for World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala.
Off the field, the saga over training compensation and solidarity continues, and it includes a few players who have moved abroad from the U.S. Youth clubs have sent letters of demand over signings in Europe including Luca de la Torre at Fulham, Andrija Novakovich at Reading and Rubio Rubín at Utrecht, and they could take their cases to the FIFA Dispute Resolution Chamber if they receive an unsatisfactory response.
The effects remain to be seen regarding a recent recommended ban on heading the ball and reducing the field size at younger ages and a shift in policies that will see players on teams that include others from their birth year. They could all have an impact on the youth national teams in the near future as well.