Less than a week after returning from the FISF International Soccer Tournament in Italy where the U.S. won their group for the third straight tournament and finished second, U.S. Under-17 MNT head coach John Ellinger talks about his team’s performance in Italy, their inability to finish in the title game and the defense’s strong play throughout the tournament. Ellinger also discusses the team’s three-game trek to Finland, where they recorded one loss and two draws against the Finland Under-17 National Team and much more.
U.S. Under-17s in Italy
By John Ellinger
Going to Finland was just a matter of getting a look at where the World Championship is going to be held next year. I always try to use it as a kind of motivating thing to get the guys there so they can see the final picture and use it to motivate them through qualifying.
Playing against Finland we had a bunch of new players who were playing in their first internationals, and we weren’t quite sure how they would play. As it turned out we played well in the first half of the first game, and then lost our legs in the second half (2-0 loss). The next two games I thought we outplayed them and could have come away with two wins instead of two draws (1-1 and 2-2 draws).
Coming off of that trip, there is no question we wanted to improve in Italy. The Finland trip made us focus a little more and the mentality was to win the group – and this team has done that in three straight tournaments (Mondial Minimes Montaigu Vendee in France, Ballymena International Tournament in N. Ireland and the FISF International Soccer Tournament in Italy). To me that is a very good thing, to get in the habit of getting out of your group - and now we have got into two finals (Ballymena, FISF) and a semifinal (Montaigu). Now we need to take it to the next step and win in the final.
We played well in three out of the four games in Italy, and we even played well in the final that we lost to Uruguay (2-0 loss). The game against Russia we didn’t play well, and they played their best game of the tournament against us. I think they really used the game against us as motivation, as a lot of teams do. Our goalkeeper Phil Marfuggi saved a penalty in that game that really helped us out and eventually got us one point with a 0-0 draw. But in that game we did have chances to win the game, but we just didn’t finish.
Right now our goalkeepers (Phil Marfuggi and Quentin Westberg) are both playing very well, even though neither were tested that often in Italy. Both are very, very close in terms of their playing ability, and I feel very comfortable with either one in an international setting. That is why we started each of them in two games in Italy. Both give us solid goalkeeping, and they push each other and motivate each other in training, which is important when the competition for a starting spot is so close.
Quentin made a big save in extra-time against Yugoslavia, when we were up 2-1. Phil made a huge stop on that penalty kick against Russia, but didn’t have a whole heck of a lot to do against Uruguay. He only faced four shots and the two goals were unstoppable, out-of-this-world shots.
In the final against Uruguay, we just didn’t finish. In a typical international match, you are going to get five or six chances to score, and you have to put them away. Uruguay had four chances and scored two. One of them was just a sick free kick from outside the box that dipped over our wall and hit the bottom of the crossbar. The other was a clearance that they controlled and then hit another bomb. Two great shots and they win.
“Memo” (Guillermo Gonzalez) had a great run in the second half that started with him nutmegging one guy and then he beat three others to get alone with the goalkeeper, and he hit it right at him. We probably had better chances than Uruguay, but we just didn’t finish.
Against England we probably played our best game of the tournament as far as moving the ball and getting behind them and causing them fits. Jacob (Peterson) had a particularly strong game on the right flank beating players, going at them aggressively and getting behind them. He did good work and then on the other side we had John (DiRaimondo) causing them problems. In that game Eddie (Gaven) and Danny (Szetela) and Memo (Guillermo Gonzalez) all played really well for us in the middle of the field, and the backs also played real well for us. Their one goal came on a corner kick that was flicked to the far post, and their guy just out-jumped everyone to head it in. They only had one other shot the entire game.
I thought our back four in the tournament played very well. There were good teams at this tournament, teams that really attacked well. Even though we lost 2-0 to Uruguay, we only gave them four shots and they hit two rockets. We snuffed them the rest of the game. That pretty much the way we played the whole tournament (In addition to allowing only four shots in the final, the U.S. allowed a total of 12 shots in their three group games.)
Now that we have 30 players in residency, the dynamics for an international trip are a little different. We used to bring the entire team, but we don’t do that anymore. The advantage of having a larger group is now while one team is playing internationally, your other players can still play games in Florida. Our team of players who didn’t travel played twice while we were away, posting wins both times. It’s great that you can take away half the team and still see the other half post positive results.