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.
PODCAST: Wambach's farewell; Capping USA's 2015
GALLERY: U.S. Soccer in 2015
The Year in Photos: U.S. Soccer in 2015
U.S. U-20 vs. El Salvador, January 24
Paul Arriola (7) celebrates his goal in a World Cup qualifying playoff match vs. El Salvador. The U.S. U-20s cemented their place in the World Cup with a 2-0 win. They drew host New Zealand, Ukraine and Myanmar in their summer group.
USMNT vs. Chile, January 28
Bobby Wood flies high in the USA's 3-2 loss to Chile, which opened the calendar year for the national team. Brek Shea and Jozy Altidore scored in the loss.
USMNT vs. Panama, February 8
Gyasi Zardes and Clint Dempsey celebrate after combining for a goal against Panama at StubHub Center to cap off winter training camp with a 2-0 victory.
USWNT vs. France, February 8
Lori Chalupny (left) and the USWNT had a tough time keeping pace with Jessica Houara (center) and France in a 2-0 loss in a friendly in Lorient. The match was the first of two played without suspended goalkeeper Hope Solo.
USWNT vs. England, February 13
Alex Morgan celebrates scoring the lone goal in the USWNT's 1-0 win over England in a friendly at Stadium mk in Milton Keynes.
USWNT vs. Norway, March 4
The USWNT opens the Algarve Cup with a 2-1 win over Norway, marking Hope Solo's return from a 30-day suspension with a come-from-behind victory. Carli Lloyd scored both goals for the Americans.
USWNT vs. Switzerland, March 6
Alex Morgan celebrates her goal in the USWNT's 3-0 win over Switzerland in the Algarve Cup group stage.
USWNT vs. Iceland, March 9
Alex Morgan and the USWNT were frustrated by Iceland, held to a 0-0 draw to wrap up group play at the Algarve Cup. The result was still enough to put the Americans in the final against France.
USWNT vs. France, March 11
The U.S. women's national team celebrates winning the Algarve Cup after a 2-0 triumph over France. Julie Johnston and Christen Press scored, and Hope Solo saved a penalty kick.
U.S. U-17 vs. Jamaica, March 15
The U.S. U-17 national team celebrates qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Cup after defeating Jamaica on penalty kicks following a 0-0 draw in a playoff match.
USMNT vs. Denmark, March 25
U.S. goalkeeper Nick Rimando expresses his frustration after one of Nicklas Bendtner's three goals in Denmark's 3-2 win over the Americans. Jozy Altidore and Aron Johannsson scored for the USA.
USMNT vs. Switzerland, March 31
Jozy Altidore watches as Brek Shea hits a perfect free kick to put the USA on the board against Switzerland. The Americans settled for a 1-1 draw.
USWNT vs. New Zealand, April 4
Lori Chalupny (16) celebrates her goal vs. New Zealand with Lauren Holiday at St. Louis's Busch Stadium. The goal opened the floodgates for a late outburst en route to a 4-0 U.S. victory in front of more than 35,000 fans.
USMNT vs. Mexico, April 15
Jordan Morris etched his name in U.S.-Mexico lore, as the Stanford University forward scored in his first senior national team start to break a scoreless draw against El Tri at the Alamodome.
USMNT vs. Mexico, April 15
Juan Agudelo collapses to the ground in celebration after his goal at the Alamodome gave the USA a familiar lead over Mexico: Dos-a-Cero.
U.S. U-23 vs. Mexico, April 22
Real Salt Lake's Luis Gil captains the USA to a 3-0 win over Mexico at StubHub Center in Olympic qualifying preparation for both CONCACAF favorites.
USWNT vs. Ireland, May 10
Abby Wambach celebrates one of her two goals vs. Ireland as the USWNT took a 3-0 win on Mother's Day at Avaya Stadium.
USWNT vs. Mexico, May 17
Sydney Leroux is congratulated by her teammates after one of her two goals in a 5-1 pre-World Cup rout of Mexico at StubHub Center.
U.S. U-20 vs. Myanmar, May 30
Maki Tall celebrates his equalizer for the USA as part of a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Myanmar to open the U-20 World Cup group stage in New Zealand.
USWNT vs. South Korea, May 30
Carli Lloyd gets off a shot through traffic in the USA's final World Cup send-off friendly, a 0-0 draw against South Korea at Red Bull Arena.
U.S. U-23 in Toulon Tournament, May-June
Alonso Hernandez, left, takes on Qatar, while Julian Green, right, vies for the ball against France in the Toulon Tournament as part of Olympic qualifying preparations.
U.S. U-20 vs. New Zealand, June 2
Gedion Zelalem controls the ball against New Zealand in the USA's 4-0 win that cemented a place in the U-20 World Cup knockout stage.
U.S. U-20 vs. Ukraine, June 5
From left, Joel Soñora, Gedion Zelalem and Rubio Rubin show frustration during a 3-0 loss to Ukraine that wrapped up group play in the U-20 World Cup.
USMNT vs. Netherlands, June 5
DeAndre Yedlin and Danny Williams salute each other after the latter's goal–his first international strike–brought the U.S. level with the Netherlands at 3-3 in the 89th minute.
USMNT vs. Netherlands, June 5
Bobby Wood puts the finishing touch on an epic comeback, with his 90th-minute strike capping a wild 4-3 win for the USA over the Netherlands. The USA trailed 3-1 in the 71st minute.
U.S. U-23 vs. England, June 7
USA defender Boyd Okwuonu makes a tackle on England's Duncan Watmore in the Toulon Tournament third-place game. The U.S. U-23s won 2-1, sealing their best finish in the tournament.
USWNT vs. Australia, June 8, WWC
Megan Rapinoe lets out a yell after her second goal, which sealed the USA's 3-1 win over Australia to open Group D play in the Women's World Cup.
U.S. U-20 vs. Colombia, June 10
Rubio Rubin celebrates the goal that gives the USA a 1-0 win over Colombia in the FIFA U-20 World Cup round of 16. Zack Steffen's late penalty save preserved the win, as the Americans reached the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007.
USMNT vs. Germany, June 10
Michael Bradley was everywhere against World Cup champion Germany, assisting on Mix Diskerud's equalizer and commanding the midfield in a 2-1 win in Cologne.
USMNT vs. Germany, June 10
For the second straight game, Bobby Wood came off the bench and scored a stunning winner. He watches his long-range blast beat Ron-Robert Zieler in a 2-1 win over world No. 1 Germany.
USWNT vs. Sweden, June 12
Julie Johnston wins the header in a dominant showing on the U.S. back line, helping the Americans preserve a 0-0 draw against Sweden in the second game of the Women's World Cup group stage.
U.S. U-20 vs. Serbia, June 13
U.S. players' emotions say it all after a gut-wrenching loss to Serbia in penalty kicks at the U-20 World Cup. After a 0-0 draw, the Americans fell 6-5 in PKs, despite Zack Steffen's two saves in sudden death.
USWNT vs. Nigeria, June 16
Abby Wambach leaps for joy after scoring in the 45th minute off Megan Rapinoe's corner kick, which delivered a 1-0 win to the USA and first place in Group D of the Women's World Cup.
USWNT vs. Colombia, June 22
Alex Morgan's goal broke a 0-0 draw, provided relief after Abby Wambach's PK miss and helped the U.S. women to the World Cup quarterfinals after a 2-0 win over Colombia in the round of 16.
USWNT vs. China, June 26
While Carli Lloyd (10) celebrates her goal in the distance, stalwart center backs Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn rejoice in the goal that put the USA into the semifinals of the Women's World Cup.
USWNT vs. Germany, June 30
Carli Lloyd yells in celebration after scoring the penalty that put the USA up over Germany en route to a 2-0 victory in the Women's World Cup semifinals.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, July 3
DeAndre Yedlin and Jozy Altidore, wearing special jerseys with stars-and-stripes numbers for July 4, celebrate after a Guatemala own goal gifts the USA a 1-0 lead during a 4-0 win in Nashville, Tennessee, prior to the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
Carli Lloyd sets the tone with a third-minute goal in the Women's World Cup final against Japan, the first of her three strikes within 16 minutes that lifted the USA to a 5-2 win and its first title in 16 years.
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
U.S. players rush the field after the final whistle, which sealed their 5-2 triumph over Japan and a record third World Cup title.
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
Victorious, the U.S. women's national team raises the World Cup trophy for the third time, but the first in 16 years, after completing a 5-2 win over Japan in the final at Vancouver's BC Place.
USMNT vs. Honduras, July 7
Clint Dempsey leaps in celebration of his second goal in the USA's Gold Cup opener against Honduras. The Americans won 2-1, fending off a late Honduras surge to collect all three points in the start of their title defense.
USA vs. Haiti, July 10
Clint Dempsey (8) is congratulated by his teammates after a 47th-minute goal gave the USA a 1-0 win over Haiti in the Gold Cup. Gyasi Zardes, second from left, came on at halftime and assisted, and the win clinched first place in Group A.
USMNT vs Panama, July 13
Clint Dempsey, left, and Michael Bradley, right, celebrate after the latter's goal in the USA's 1-1 draw vs. Panama, which wrapped up group play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
USMNT vs. Cuba, July 18
The U.S. men put on a clinic against an overmatched Cuba in the Gold Cup quarterfinals, with Clint Dempsey's hat trick leading the way in a 6-0 rout. Gyasi Zardes, Aron Johannsson and Omar Gonzalez also scored.
USMNT vs. Jamaica, July 22
A downtrodden Clint Dempsey and Jurgen Klinsmann walk off the field as Jamaica celebrates a stunning 2-1 win over the USA in the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals.
USMNT vs. Panama, July 25
Michael Bradley walks away in dismay after having a penalty saved in a PK shootout in the USA's loss to Panama in the Gold Cup third-place game. After a 1-1 draw, Panama prevailed 3-2 in PKs, the USA's first shootout in 10 years.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, August 16
Meghan Klingenberg waves a Terrible Towel in her hometown of Pittsburgh after scoring one of the USA's many goals in an 8-0 rout of Costa Rica in its first game since winning the 2015 Women's World Cup.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, August 19
Alex Morgan and Kelley O'Hara celebrate during a second rout of Costa Rica in three days, this one a 7-2 win in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
USA U-23 vs. England U-21, Sept. 3
U.S. U-23 goalkeeper Zack Steffen looks on in disappointment as England U-21 forward James Wilson celebrates with Duncan Watmore after scoring the lone goal in a 1-0 friendly win in England.
USMNT vs. Peru, Sept. 4
Jozy Altidore, right, is congratulated after one of his two goals that sparked the USA's come-from-behind win over Peru at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
USA U-23 vs. Qatar, Sept. 8
Gedion Zelalem made his U-23 debut off the bench in the USA's 2-0 win over Qatar in England in the final tune-up before Olympic qualifying
USMNT vs. Brazil, Sept. 8
Neymar and Marcelo celebrate while DeAndre Yedlin and Ventura Alvarado look away in disgust during Brazil's 4-1 rout of the USA at Gillette Stadium.
USWNT vs. Haiti, Sept. 17, 20
Carli Lloyd scored hat tricks in both games and NWSL Golden Boot winner Crystal Dunn scored her first international goals as the USWNT beat Haiti 5-0 and 8-0 in a pair of friendlies in Detroit and Birmingham, Alabama. Haiti replaced on-strike Australia as a last-minute opponent.
USA U-23 vs. Canada, October 1
Jerome Kiesewetter, left, and Emerson Hyndman, right, sandwich Jordan Morris after his first-minute goal in the USA's 3-1 win over Canada in their Olympic qualifying opener.
USA U-23 vs. Cuba, October 3
Cameron Carter-Vickers gets congratulated by Jerome Kiesewetter and Emerson Hyndman after opening the scoring in a 6-1 rout of Cuba in their Olympic qualifying match. The USA cemented its place in the semifinal round with the win.
USA U-23 vs. Panama, October 6
There was plenty of credit to go around, as the Americans finished off a perfect group run in Olympic qualifying with a 4-0 win over Panama. Jordan Morris and Jerome Kiesewetter came on at halftime and provided the spark needed to seize the three points.
USA U-23 vs. Honduras, October 10
Wil Trapp's reaction says it all, as the USA failed to secure an automatic berth to the 2016 Olympics after falling to Honduras 2-0 in the semifinals of CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying tournament at Real Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
Captain Michael Bradley leads the USA out onto the field ahead of the Americans' CONCACAF Cup playoff vs. Mexico at the Rose Bowl.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
Geoff Cameron beats Rafa Marquez to the spot and heads home a 15th-minute equalizer off a free kick from Michael Bradley, negating a Chicharito goal five minutes earlier in the CONCACAF Cup playoff between USA and Mexico.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
U.S. forward Bobby Wood celebrates his 108th-minute goal vs. Mexico that brought the Americans level at 2-2 after Oribe Peralta had given El Tri the lead in extra time. That reprieve would only last for 10 minutes, though.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
Jermaine Jones falls to his knees in disappointment as Mexico celebrates after Paul Aguilar's sensational volley in extra time captured the CONCACAF Cup for El Tri and sends the U.S. rival to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
USA U-23 vs. Canada, October 13
Marc Pelosi (15) celebrates after his goal breaks the deadlock and sends the U.S. U-23s on their way to a 2-0 win over Canada in CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying third-place game. The U.S. still has a chance to reach Rio, but it'll have to go through Colombia in a playoff.
USMNT vs. Costa Rica, October 13
Tim Howard can't watch as Costa Rica players celebrate Joel Campbell's goal in a 1-0 friendly win at Red Bull Arena. The match marked Howard's return to the U.S. goal for the first time since the 2014 World Cup round of 16.
USA U-17 vs. Nigeria, October 17
Victor Osimhen scores for Nigeria in a 2-0 win over the USA in the teams' FIFA Under-17 World Cup opener in Chile.
USA U-17 vs. Croatia, October 20
USA U-17 midfielder Christian Pulisic watches his opening goal find the back of the net in the Americans' 2-2 draw with Croatia at the World Cup. The U.S. led 2-0 on Pulisic's goal and assist to Brandon Vazquez, but the European side mounted a furious rally to salvage a point.
USWNT vs. Brazil, October 21
Shannon Boxx, right, passes off the captain's armband to Carli Lloyd in her final act as a player, riding into retirement in the first half of a 1-1 draw against Brazil in Seattle.
USA U-17 vs. Chile, October 23
USA U-17 captain Hugo Arellano sits dejected after a 4-1 loss to host Chile eliminated the Americans from the World Cup in the group stage.
USWNT vs. Brazil, October 25
The USA said goodbye to two more veterans, with Lauren Holiday, left, and Lori Chalupny ending their careers during a 2-1 win over Brazil in Orlando. The team improved to 5-0-1 on its World Cup victory tour with the win.
USWNT at the White House, October 27
President Barack Obama welcomes the World Cup-champion USWNT to the White House, honoring their triumph in Canada.
USMNT vs. St. Vincent and the Grenadines, November 13
Jozy Altidore watches one of his shots head toward goal in the USA's 6-1 win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the opening of 2018 World Cup qualifying. Altidore scored twice, as the USA overcame a shocking early deficit and won at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
USMNT vs. Trinidad and Tobago, November 17
Gyasi Zardes and the U.S. men were held to a 0-0 draw by Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain, closing the year with a World Cup qualifying and sitting atop Group C in the semifinal round via goal differential tiebreaker.
USWNT vs. Trinidad & Tobago, December 10
Christen Press triumphantly raises her hand after a goal during her hat trick in a 6-0 rout of Trinidad & Tobago at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
USWNT vs. China, December 13
Crystal Dunn leaves her feet to settle a pass in the USA's 2-0 win over China at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Dunn and Christen Press scored the goals.
USWNT vs. China, December 16
Abby Wambach is introduced in the U.S. lineup for the last time at the Superdome in New Orleans, playing in her final match before retiring. She ends her U.S. career with 255 appearances and an international-record 184 goals.
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.