The United States national team program took a beating over the past week, with the senior team losing its 2017 Confederations Cup playoff and the Under-23s failing to automatically qualify for the 2016 Olympics. However, the U-17 group that kicks off its 2015 World Cup this weekend playing in one of the toughest groups might have a chance to win the whole tournament, at least if you believe the players.
“We have a chance,” center back Danny Barbir told SI.com in a phone interview. “Our team is that good, I feel.”
Christian Pulišić, the team’s primary playmaker who recently got time for Borussia Dortmund’s first team in a friendly, was a little more cautious in his prediction. The U.S. has been drawn into the tournament’s second-toughest group with host nation Chile, Nigeria and Croatia. (The only tougher one contains Australia, Germany, Mexico and Argentina.)
“We’re going to take on the challenge,” Pulišić told SI.com, “and I think we’re going to be successful.”
Coached by Richie Williams, the U.S. U-17s did put up some impressive results over the past year, beating England in the 2014 Nike International Friendlies series and splitting two games with Mexico in Mexico City last month despite traveling without two of their best players in Pulišić and Barbir.
Still, the U.S. struggled through the qualifying tournament, tying Honduras and losing to Jamaica to finish the group stage and only advance to a playoff for a World Cup berth. The Americans again had trouble against Jamaica in that playoff, winning in penalties after a scoreless draw.
The U.S. didn’t qualify for the 2013 U-17 World Cup but finished in the knockout round five straight tournaments before that. Some of the current group’s confidence seems unearned, but it’s still one of the best U-17 teams the country has seen for some time.
“We don’t think about it too much,” Pulišić said. “We’ve said we want to write our own history, so we’re not comparing ourselves to another group or anything like that. We just want to go out and do the best we can, and after that, everyone will remember the effort that we gave.”
Oct. 17 vs. Nigeria, 4 p.m. ET (Telemundo)
Oct. 20 vs. Croatia, 4 p.m. ET (NBC Universo)
Oct. 23 vs. Chile, 7 p.m. ET (NBC Universo)
In many ways, this team represents the next step in U.S. player development that Jurgen Klinsmann has been pushing for as technical director. A number are trying to make it overseas and are doing so pretty successfully for their age, including Barbir at West Bromwich Albion, Pulišić in Dortmund, Luca de la Torre at Fulham and Joshua Pérez at Fiorentina.
The group also includes two Mexican-based players, Monterrey’s Joe Gallardo and Club Tijuana’s Brandon Vázquez, as well as Alexis Velela and Haji Wright of the New York Cosmos. Alejandro Zendejas signed a homegrown contract with FC Dallas a year ago, and Eric López (LA Galaxy II) and Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls II) play in the USL.
Most of the others have lived together in the U.S. U-17 Residency Program in Florida for much of the past two years. The only player on the 21-man World Cup roster who isn’t playing professionally or abroad and spent no time in residency is defender Auston Trusty, who has verbally committed to play at North Carolina.
The U.S. started its residency program in 1999, and the first group to go through it finished fourth at the World Cup that year. That team boasted such names as Oguchi Onyewu, Kyle Beckerman, Bobby Convey, DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, who won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player.
That’s the best the U.S. has done at a U-17 World Cup, but could this team be just as good, or even better?
Pulišić’s stock continues to rise at BVB, and Barbir signed his first professional contract in April after after an extended trial with Manchester City. Barbir said West Brom offers “a pathway for me to the first team,” which made his new club appealing.
“I haven’t made my first-team debut, so yes, a professional contract is nice, but I still want to get the next contract and the next contract,” he said. “I still want more.”
The team’s individual components are undoubtedly talented, but they’ll have to put together a good team performance in Chile just to get out of the group, let alone eclipse the 1999 team. The host nation is making its first appearance at a U-17 World Cup since 1997, nine tournaments ago, but the rest of the group is stacked.
Nigeria has won four World Cups at this level, including the 2013 tournament for which the Americans didn’t qualify. The U.S.’s first opponent on Saturday, Nigeria has come second in three other tournaments.
Croatia should be favored to win the group, though, with 12 players from the famed Dinamo Zagreb academy on its squad. Left back Borna Sosa made his first-team debut in a league game in March, and five others started for Dinamo’s U-19s in a 2-0 win over Bayern Munich on Sept. 29 in the UEFA Youth League.
Defender Branimir Kalaica was sent off after picking up two yellow cards that day, but midfielder Josip Brekalo scored the winning goal. Three others on the U-17 Croatian squad were on the bench against Bayern, including Davor Lovren, whose brother Dejan plays for Liverpool.
Still, despite the road facing the U.S., the team remains confident that it can become the third recent American men's team to advance beyond the group stage in a World Cup after the U-20s and the senior team. With a good number of players used to testing themselves against superior opposition, it doesn’t seem impossible.
“We’ve heard about the group of death and whatever, but we don’t really look at it like that,” Pulišić said. “It’s just another challenge.”