Thomas Rongen knows that he will be criticized, knows that some clever wordsmith will call him "Wrong-en." He also concedes that one of the players he does not pick to the squad he will use in qualifying for the U-20 World Cup could end up being better than those that he does.
"But this is a good thing, right?" says Rongen, the longtime coach of the United States' U-20 men's team. "It shows that there is more interest in the sport at this level and because it shows that we have a depth that perhaps we didn't had before."
Rongen closed a 12-day training camp for 26 players in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. last week. It was the final gathering of the country's best young players before qualifying begins in Guatemala in April, and reinforced what Rongen already knew: He has some tough choices to make in order to pare the group down to the 20-man squad he will take to Central America.
"We have too many passengers on the train right now. The key is to pick the right 20 players for qualifying, and so the questions we are asking now are many defenders do we take? Do we take seven defenders, or do we take six? How many forwards? How many goalkeepers?" Rongen says. "We have a depth chart. I gathered with my coaches after camp ended and we put together a depth chart. . . We have an idea where we stand, but there is still evaluating to be done and some questions to answer."
Given the 4-3-3 formation that Rongen plays, he will likely favor versatile players in his final picks. Midfielders who can play multiple positions are highly valued, especially those who can move up top or to the back line if needed.
"We have some very good players in this cycle," he says. "I don't know yet whether we have those difference-makers like we had in 2007 with Freddy [Adu], Jozy [Altidore] and Michael [Bradley] but we have a more complete team. We are two to three deep in terms of quality, so we can overcome injuries and make changes and not lose much. That is a luxury we haven't had before."
Rongen has no motivation to tip his hand as to who will be among his 20, but he did offer some hints, among them:
• The 20 players picked for qualifying will almost certainly come from the 26 players at the Florida camp with potentially one exception: Josh Gatt, a midfielder who was unable to attend the camp because of club obligations in Norway. Rongen is high on the speedy Gatt and will scout him and others in Europe before picking his team.
• The first players to know if they have made the team will likely be Fabian Huerzeler and/or Alex Zahavi, as they must apply to FIFA to switch allegiances to the U.S., which could take a month or more. Huerzeler played in youth events for Germany and Zahavi for Portugal, and given that Rongen lobbied them to switch to the U.S., it would be surprising if they were left off the team. Huerzeler, in particular, was impressive in Florida. "He worked hard and clearly put a stamp on some of the games and practices," Rongen says. "He is left-footed, and he can play the link position in the midfield and play on the left side. He is very technical and very smart, and patient and strong on the ball."
• There will be a college player or two on the roster. Given Rongen's stated preference for his players to be in a professional environment, this is no small development. Dillon Powers from Notre Dame, the MVP of last year's Milk Cup, will likely make Rongen's team if injuries don't set him back. Duke freshman centerback Sebastien Ibeagha has enjoyed a rapid rise as of late to get Rongen's attention and don't count out UCLA midfielder Kelyn Rowe. "Kelyn had a very good camp a little out of nowhere," Rongen says. "It was only second camp and he got better and better."
• Bubble players better find a team and acclimate quickly. Players who have unsettled club situations, such as defender Korey Veeder, would be wise to find a home. If Rongen can't scout a player when he watches MLS academy teams or tours Europe, it would likely give him the reason he needed to leave a player off the team.
• Joe Gyau is healthy and once again a bright prospect for the U.S. Since Gyau and fellow prodigy Charles Renken signed with Hoffenheim in August of 2009, both have been beset by injuries. But Gyau is healthy now and his abilities and speed on the outside were evident in Florida "He fell of the map a little bit," Rongen says. "We have always realized he has the talent, and of the guys there who made a really good impression he was on that list." (As for Renken, he is still getting healthy and Rongen plans to scout him when he is in Europe, but he isn't a candidate to go to Guatemala.)
With those hints in mind, here's one rough guess at the team Rongen will select for qualifying: