On the eve of the opening match of the CONCACAF Under-20 Group B Qualifying Tournament, Thomas Rongen discusses his team, his concerns, his goals and the USA’s strengths and weaknesses. The U.S. kicks off the tournament tomorrow (November 13) against Haiti at 7:30 p.m. ET in a match that can be followed live on ussoccer.com’s MatchTracker, presented by Philips Electronics. The match is also available for $19.95 through DirecTV and Time-Warner cable (in New York City).
CONCACAF Under-20 Qualifying Tournament
by Thomas Rongen
I think we feel pretty confident about where we’re at right now. We still have some concerns, but I really feel we have made great strides since we got here. From day one the college players have been pretty sharp, in large part because they’ve played quite a few games. But there are always adjustments to make when you come in with a new group at the national team level because the way we play may be different than what they’re used to. Overall the college kids are sharp right now, because they’re in the middle of their season.
The MLS players were a concern coming in and to a certain extent still are. Santino (Quaranta) was one that we knew we would have to watch because of his lack of playing time and game sharpness, but also coming back from a pretty serious injury and the first major surgery for him. We have watched him from day one, and he has made tremendous strides. Is he where he needs to be? Probably not. But an 80-90% fit Santino Quaranta is still a very important player for this team.
One thing that we do think about is the lack of playing time on this team for some of the MLS guys. Santino has not played for this team, Bobby (Convey) has seen very limited minutes (two games) and Eddie (Johnson) has seen just a little more time (13 games). You are always worried as a coach that the chemistry on the field isn’t going to be there from day one and isn’t going to be there for the opening whistle.
On the field I think one of our general strengths is that we are very athletic in all areas of the field. I think our athleticism, certainly on set pieces, will play a role in this tournament because of our size and our strength, which should always be a strength for a U.S. team. The team spirit in this group is great, which will help us in tough games. I think technically we have some very, very special players going forward. Most of our experience is really from the midfield forward.
Our lack of high-level games comes in the back, where most of our college players play. Having said that we have players back there who have played with the Under-17 and Under-18s.
I think we are pretty much where we need to be in terms of being on the same page and understanding what we need to do as a group and how we want to play against Haiti, El Salvador and Canada. But right now our main focus has been on Haiti.
This is obviously a very significant tournament where there is external pressure with us being the home team and being the team that really should qualify. You never really know how your team will react until the whistle blows, but I really think we have done a nice job of preparing our guys mentally and have really created a good expectation level and a realistic expectation level for them.
The expectation level for us – our goal – is to 'Just Qualify Baby.' That is what we are here for. We have short and long-term goals, but it really comes down to three important games in the qualifying tournament. Your only goal, ultimately, is to qualify. Would we like to do it in style? Would we like to do it in great fashion, attacking soccer, scoring a lot of goals and not giving up a lot of goals? No doubt. But at the end of it all you just want to move on.
We have had some success against some very good international opponents, both here and internationally, but I think the true teams colors are going to show in this tournament.