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U-17s Battle Argentina Sunday in Major CONMEBOL Tournament in Paraguay

After arriving late on Friday night, the U.S. Under-17 ’88 Men’s National Team has a quick turnaround before their opening match of the Campeonato Sudamericano de Futbol Sub-16 against Argentina in Encarnacion, Paraguay, at 8:15 p.m. ET on Sunday evening. The match will be the first for the U.S. in Group B as they will also face Uruguay (Sept. 15) and Ecuador (Sept. 18) in the 12-team tournament that is being held by CONMEBOL.

That was the means of transportation required for the Under-17 ‘88 MNT as they traveled 24 hours straight from their hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Encarnacion, Paraguay, their home for the next 10 days. The U-17s left the IMG campus, the sight of U.S. Soccer’s Residency Program, in Bradenton, Fla., on Tuesday afternoon and headed for Fort Lauderdale where they held training on Wednesday and Thursday before packing up the vans and heading to the Miami International Airport on Thursday night around 8 p.m. ET to catch their flight to Paraguay. After a slight delay (a flat tire on the plane needed to be fixed) the U-17s boarded their eight hour flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil, before waiting two hours and catching their connection to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, a two-and-a-half hour haul. The dreary players and staff then lugged their equipment to a waiting bus that took them to lunch at a local restaurant before making the five hour drive south to Encarnacion, which is on the edge of the Rio Parana, which serves as the border with Argentina. The exhausting bus ride seemed to take forever, but fortunately the bus was one of the most comfortable the players and staff have experienced in their numerous international trips, as it was equipped with cushioned seats that reclined all the way back, allowing everyone to catch at least a quick cat nap during the trip before they arrived around 7 p.m. ET.

Helping the players and staff get some sleep during the bus ride to Encarnacion was the full lunch they received at a local restaurant in Asuncion, which may turn out to be one of the best meals they will receive during their stay in Paraguay. Seated at one long table, the team ventured up to the buffet-style setting for some pasta, rice, salad and vegetables before getting the real treat when they returned to their seats as every different kind of meat was brought to the table for their choosing. Waiters carried around ribs, chicken, beef, sausages, and various other meats on long skewers, and carne directly up to the players’ seat, offering a piece or chunk that they would slice off and plop onto your plate. Trying to keep up was impossible as before anyone could finish one kind of meat another was being presented, making it seem as though there was a waiter for each person. After saying yes to most of the selections in the beginning, everyone began realizing they needed to eat some before adding more to the plate and before long were kindly waving away the waiters’ offers.

The team held their first practice this morning, training on a field adjacent to the hotel and got a few unexpected visitors during their warm-up. As the players stretched on one end of the pitch, three horses on the opposite end ventured from the nearby field they were grazing in and trotted in front of the goal. As the coaches and players looked on in disbelief, the horses quickly made their way off the field and stood about 20 feet behind the goal. A minute later, a Paraguay cowboy on horseback strolled in and assembled the trio back to the stable nearby. After the quick incident, the players went through a spirited 90-minute session, working on possession and finishing up with 10v10 match (starters vs. reserves) on a full field. The projected starters did well against the substitutes in the match, creating a number of chances inside the penalty area, but struggled to finish, something the players will need to do a better job of when they face Argentina on Sunday.

Being south of the equator, the U-17s haven’t been experiencing the best weather as it is currently winter here in Paraguay. While it was somewhat warm when the team arrived late on Friday night, today was cold and rainy and it is supposed to get even colder tomorrow. Oddly, the temperature in Paraguay was in the high 90s just a few days before the team’s arrival. While the cold weather was not totally expected, equipment manager Matt Yoder did bring long pants and warm jackets that are being utilized to the fullest by the players.

You only turn 16 once and if you’re midfielder Jeremy Hall, you are probably only one of a small minority of Americans that has celebrated it in Paraguay. The Tampa, Fla., native was welcomed at breakfast this morning with happy birthday wishes and the fellas broke into song for a few seconds, but held off embarrassing Hall too much. So what did Hall receive for his birthday? Well, not too much really as he’s been kind of out of reach the past few days, but he says he’ll be getting something from his parents when he gets back to the States.

While the tournament might be seen by the U.S. as a chance to get some good experience as they move toward qualifying for the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Championship, for the CONMEBOL teams it is much more as the twelve-team tournament will determine the teams that enter the South American qualifiers. The tournament was originally supposed to be the bi-annual U-15 South American Championship, but with the 2005 World Championship being held in Peru, the President of CONMEBOL raised the age limit on the tournament.

Argentina is known to have one of the strongest youth programs in the world, so it will no doubt be a tough match for the U.S. when they face the South American power on Sunday night. One advantage Ellinger’s squad has going into the game is that almost half of the players (nine) on the roster already faced Argentina back on Oct. 15, 2003, during their tour of the country. The match, which was the U-17 ‘88s first international, went in the favor of Argentina 1-0 off a goal in the 22nd minute, but the U.S. came away knowing they had played up to par. In a tight defensive match, each team was only able to get off three shots on goal, with the U.S. having an advantage in corner kicks 5-4. Ellinger said he’s looking forward to a good match on Sunday as the U.S. has improved in the 11 months since their first meeting and he’s intrigued to see how far Argentina has come as well. Nine players (seven starters and two reserves) on the U.S. roster here in Paraguay played against Argentina in their first meeting: Bryant Rueckner, Eric Lichaj, Jeremy Hall, Richard Edgar, Ofor Sarkodie, Blake Wagner, Michael Dal Pra, Ryan Soroka and Quavas Kirk.

U.S. U-17 ’88 MNT vs. Argentina
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Oct. 15, 2003

Scoring Summary:
                    1st           2nd             Final
USA                 0              0                  0
Argentina          1              0                  1

U.S. Lineup: 28-Bryant Rueckner; 26-Eric Lichaj (24-Jeremy Hall, 46), 14-Taylor Waspi (39-Mark Wiltse, 46), 21-Richard Edgar, 29-Ofori Sarkodie (13-Blake Wagner, 36 ; 19-Cameron Jordan, 89); 22-Kevin Alston, 33-Michael Dal Pra, 36-Kyle Nakazawa (32-Tony Ampaipitakwong, 46), 37-Jonathan Villanueva (35-Gabriel Farfan, 76); 27-Ryan Soroka (34-Michael Farfan, 89), 25-Quavas Kirk.

GOALKEEPERS (2): 18-Brian Perk (Santa Margarita, Calif.), 1-Bryant Rueckner (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.); DEFENDERS (7): 10-Carlos Borja (Anaheim, Calif.), 5-Richard Edgar (Mechanicsville, Md.), 17-Jeremy Hall (Tampa, Fla.), 4-Eric Lichaj (Downer’s Grove, Ill.), 2-Patrick Rickards (Sacramento, Calif.), 7-Ofori Sarkodie (Huber Heights, Ohio), 3-Joel Smith (Irvine, Calif.); MIDFIELDERS (7): 20-Matt Armstrong (Phoenix, Ariz.), 16-Nikolas Besagno (Maple Valley, Wash.), 12-Michael Dal Pra (Bronxville, N.Y.), 19-Amaechi Igwe (Belmont, Calif.), 11-Ryan Soroka (Langhorne, Pa.), 13-Blake Wagner (Tampa, Fla.), 14-Drew Yates (Pasadena, Md.); FORWARDS (4): 15-Eddie Ababio (Tampa, Fla.), 6-Quavas Kirk (Aurora, Ill.), 8-Michael Stephens (Woodridge, Ill.), 9-Preston Zimmerman (Pasco, Wash.).

ARG (positions not listed)
1-Emiliano Molina, 2-Juan Forlin, 3-Juan Caracoche, 4-Jose San Bamon, 5-Javier Liendo, 6-Matias Palauecino, 7-Claudio Acosta, 8-Nicolas Bul, 9-Sergio Aguero, 10-Diego Buonanote, 11-Juan Antonio, 12-Dario Sand, 13-Jorge Sotomayor, 14-Martin Martinez, 15-Diego Gonzalez, 16-Leandro Loronel, 17-Matias Zarate, 18-Alejandro Gomez, 19-Maximiliano Bardell, 20-Mario Formica.

In the two other groups, Group A (played in Cuidad de Este) consists of all South American teams with Paraguay, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, while Mexico, the only other non-CONMEBOL team, was placed in Group C (played in Pedro Juan Caballero), probably the toughest group, with Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. The top two finishers in each group, along with the top two third place teams will advance to the quarterfinals, which will be played on Sept. 21 in Itaugua and Sept. 22 in Luque. The semifinals will also be played in Luque on Sept. 24, while the final will be played in Paraguay’s capital city, Asuncion, on Sept. 26.

Not only is Group C probably the toughest group in terms of the quality of teams, but it also has the toughest schedule of the three groups because any of the teams that advance to the quarterfinals will have the least amount of rest after their final group game. In somewhat of an odd set-up, only one group plays on any particular day during the first round of the tournament. Group A kicks off the tournament tonight with Bolivia vs. Chile and Paraguay vs. Peru, while tomorrow, the U.S. and Group B will play their opening matches, and Group C will not see their first action until Monday. That means that Group A will have its third and final match on Sept. 17, Group B on Sept. 18 and Group C on Sept. 19. With the quarterfinals being held on Sept. 21-22, teams that advance out of Group A will have three or four days of rest, teams from Group B will have two to three, and Group C only one to two.

Six players on the U.S. roster just started Residency this fall and are taking their first international trip with the U-17s. Defenders Patrick Rickards and Joel Smith, midfielders Drew Yates and Matt Armstrong, forward Eddie Ababio and goalkeeper Brian Perk all made the trip to Paraguay. Perk and forward Michael Stephens are the only two players on the roster born in 1989 as the rest of the team was born in 1988.

The majority of players for Argentina are playing with in the youth teams with the major clubs in Argentina, while one (Alejandro Gomez) is with Arsenal in England. Five players play with River Plate, three with Independiente and two with Boca Juniors.

Quavas Kirk leads the team in overall goals scored with nine (three international), while Preston Zimmerman, who joined the residency program just this April, has compiled an impressive strike rate with eight goals (five international) in 18 games. Ryan Soroka, whose swift playmaking skills and blazing speed make him a nuisance for opposing defenses, leads the team with five assists, while adding four goals.

On defense, the U.S. is bolstered by a backline of Carlos Borja, Richard Edgar, Eric Lichaj and Ofori Sarkodie, that played over 20 games together during their first year in residency. Along with first-choice ‘keeper Michael Rueckner, the Under-17s have held their opponents to just over a goal a game, compiling a 1.10 goals against average.

The U-17s have steadily improved since coming together in September 2003, compiling a 24-17-9 record while outscoring their opponents 89-61. After a lackluster showing in April in their first international tournament – the Montaigu Tournament in Montaigu, France – where they finished eighth, the Under-17s came away with back-to-back second place finishes. Less than a month later at the Ballymena International Tournament in Northern Ireland, the U.S. won their group before falling in the final to Switzerland inpenalty kicks. In early August, the U.S. traveled to Peru for the Copa Telefonica Tournament, where they defeated Peru and tied Ecuador to finish behind tournament winner Colombia.

The tournament will provide the U-17’s an opportunity to play against tough international competition in a tournament format, a valuable experience as the U.S. moves towards CONCACAF qualifying in Costa Rica from April 12-16, 2005. The U-17s will attempt to continue its streak of being the only nation to qualify for each FIFA Under-17 World Championship, a total of 10, one every two years since 1985.

“They’re just horsing around.” AND “This is turning into a night-mare.”

-- Two bad jokes uttered by assistant/goalkeeping coach Peter Mellor after witnessing the three horses trot onto the team’s practice field this morning.