U.S. Under-20 team makes strides
The U.S. Under-20 national team won the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland last week
The good result came just a year after a disappointing showing at U-20 World Cup
U.S. Soccer's expanded search for talent is starting to pay dividends
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 Thomas Rongen said. "But this group has the ability to impose itself on the game technically and tactically."
In the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada, a U.S. team led by Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu and Michael Bradley won its group (over Brazil, which it defeated 2-1) and advanced to the quarterfinals. In the 2009 U-20 World Cup in Egypt, the U.S. failed to get out of group and was outclassed by Germany and South Korea, losing both games 3-0. More disconcerting than the losses was the apparent lack of creative difference-makers on the squad. It appeared as if the U.S. was regressing from the high of 2007.
The brightness that the Milk Cup should bring to followers of the U.S. has as much to do with how the team won than the mere fact that it notched victories. "This team, I think, has more in common with the  team than 2009," Rongen said.
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 Conor Shanosky ("a Rico Clark type," Rongen said) with Dillon Powers, a more attack-minded player from Notre Dame.
"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:
Gale Agbossoumonde: The 6-foot-2 center back captained the team and scored the first goal in the final. With his size and composure on the ball (honed at S.C. Braga in Portugal), he may be the surest bet to suit up for the senior national team one day.
"Bob [Bradley] and I talk and I told him that [Agbossoumonde] has special qualities," Rongen said. "He's almost too comfortable playing the ball out of the back, always looking for people in a forward position, but that is easier to break than trying to teach technical ability."
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.
Alex Molano: If there was a breakout performer for the U.S., it was Molano, an attacking midfielder who plays for NK Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia. "Up the middle we had two center backs [Agbossoumonde and Akron's Perry Kitchen] comfortable starting the attack out of the back, connecting with Powers and then Molano, who gives us elements tactically and physically of that traditional No. 10 passer," Rongen said. "We were pleased with what we saw from him."
Juan Agudelo: The lanky forward showed that he could be effective as a withdrawn forward or stationed higher up. He scored twice in the final; his second was a clinical finish. The 17-year-old isn't likely to get many minutes with the Red Bulls in the short term, and that may slow his ascent, but he is worth watching.
Zarek Valentin and Greg Garza: The starting outside backs in the final, they shined in different ways. Valentin, a sophomore at Akron who doesn't seem long for the college game, bombed forward and assisted on Agudelo's goal. Garza, who plays in Portugal for G.D. Estoril Praia, was forced to stay home as Northern Ireland's best attackers were on his (left) side, and he handled himself well.
In addition, Maryland's Ethan White, who debuted with the U-20s in the Milk Cup, also showed promise. Given the age and ineffectiveness of the current crop of outside backs on the senior team, Valentin, Garza and White can't develop fast enough.
"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 Omar Salgado and Toronto FC midfielder Fuad Ibrahim; Maryland goalkeeper Zac MacMath was a rock and is reportedly off to train with Tim Howard and Everton. But just as notable were the players not in Northern Ireland.
Bobby Wood (1860 Munich), Amobi Okugo (Philadelphia Union), Sebastian Lletget (West Ham United), Tristan Bowen (Los Angeles Galaxy), Alex Zahavi (Maccabi Haifa) and goalkeeper Cody Cropper (Ipswich Town) would likely all have seen significant minutes in the Milk Cup had they not been unavailable because of illness (Lletget) or club commitments, Rongen said.
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."