The U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team has arrived in Finland and is only two days away from playing its first game of the 2003 FIFA Under-17 World Championship against South Korea. For head coach John Ellinger it will be another chance to lead the U.S. U-17 MNT into a World Championship. Under the guidance of Ellinger, the '99 U.S. Under-17 team closed out a brilliant run through the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship in New Zealand finishing fourth, the best finish at an Under-17 World Championship in the 21-year history of the U.S. program. As the final preparations are done, Ellinger took time to talk to ussoccer.com about how the team looks going into its first game, what players are emerging and his overall take on the Lahti, Finland.
ussoccer.com: How did the four matches in England last week help prepare the team for the Championship?
John Ellinger: I felt that preparation wise we got to give everybody a good amount of playing time and got to see some of them in a couple of different positions. It was a good level of competition, but my mindset going into the four games was to get everyone playing time, come out with no major injuries and play competition that was going to be similar to what we would play in our group. The first three obviously replicated the style play of South Korea and Nigeria of course replicated the style of Sierra Leone. I was pretty pleased with the results and the overall standard of play after the first half of Blackburn.
ussoccer.com: How does the team look going into the game against South Korea?
JE: Overall, there is no question that I think we've done the preparation part. Korea is a strong side, very fit and technically very sound. We just have to go out and compete at a high level. We played South Korea this summer in the Busan International Tournament, so they are a familiar opponent. We played them 0-0 in the first half and then lost are legs in the second half. We also made some mistakes that cost us goals, so hopefully that won't happen again.
ussoccer.com: How important is it to get a positive result against Korea?
JE: The first game of any kind of group play is always a crucial game. Is it a must win? I don't know if it's a must win, but we need to have a positive result. We need to get a win or a draw out of this to be in a position for the next round. I think that is important, especially after the 2001 World Championship when we lost the opening game and then we did have a must win against France, who had lost to Nigeria.
ussoccer.com: What players have been making the biggest impact of late?
JE: Danny Szetela has played impressive of late and is pretty much on fire. I just fell that with his play, getting him on the field is important enough for us whether we play a 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2. Jamie Watson is playing very well as a forward. He's very busy and is creating problems for opposing defenses. He can get in behind the defense, is good at keeping the ball, and he scores some goals. Defensively, Steve Curfman is a very smart defender. He is a versatile player who can play anywhere and at this point a couple players have had injuries. Starting since the tournament in Korea this summer, Steve has had to play and he played well. He's done well with the opportunity and makes it hard for a coach to take him out if you're doing the job. Steve is doing just that. Those three in particular are making us a better team.
ussoccer.com: What are your impressions of Lahti?
JE: I think the stadium looks to be in great shape. At the draw in June, the surface looked a bit spotty, but it appears that has been corrected. The training fields have been fine. The most important thing is that the grass that we play our games on is similar to what we train on. Overall, the people have been great. Our hotel is in a downtown area, which is good because it gives the guys something to do in their down time. So far, being in Lahti has been a bonus.