US SoccerUS Soccer

U.S. Under-17 Men's National Team Players Enter Summer Break as World Championship Preparations Continue

After Rigorous Qualifying Year, Rest Period Implemented
Prior to World Championship in the Fall

As players in the U.S. Under-17 Residency program get ready to head home for the summer, U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team head coach John Hackworth had a tough decision to make.

Usually, going home means players return to their club teams and summer means State Cups, regional tournaments and National Championships. But for Residency players, competing in those summer events would translate into constant high-level competition after just returning from a successful world championship qualifying campaign on top of a year of intense preparations.

The decision was this: institute a mandatory break in June for Residency players being considered for the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Championship to be played in Peru in late September. Those players include most of the USA’s U-17 ’88 team and a few players from the ’89 group.

“Right now in youth soccer, there are really no breaks built in at the national level in terms of our clubs and ODP, especially during the summer,” said U.S. Soccer Director of Coaching Education and Youth Development Bob Jenkins, who discussed the decision with Hackworth before it was implemented. “To take some time off is very valuable, not only from a physical standpoint, but also from a mental standpoint.”

Players in Residency have been in Bradenton, Fla., since August of 2004, participating in both domestic and international games, and traveling to tournaments in places such as Paraguay and Costa Rica. The ’89 age group is currently participating in the Ballymena International Tournament in Northern Ireland and the players who were a part of the qualifying team in Costa Rica are back in Florida playing matches against the likes of the Canada U-17 National Team, older Premier clubs and colleges. Players will be able to return home for a while before reconvening at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., in late June, and will then be together from then through the World Championship, which ends in early October.

Although a break from Residency and from soccer seems like the obvious pathway, it is not such a simple solution when considering all of the club competitions that take place in the summer. Such competitions include State Cups, which qualify clubs for Regional Cups and from there on to National Championship tournaments.

Naturally, club coaches want their best players available for those important tournaments. Unfortunately, participating in those competitions means that some players would be playing competitive soccer without any significant rest from August 2004 through the 2005 FIFA World Championship.

“If you look at any sport and any elite athlete, they need to take at least a period of restoration and recovery, especially after the type of year that we’ve given our residency players,” Hackworth said. “We’ve just competed and qualified for the World Championship. I don’t think, in any sport, you would ask your athlete to play at 100 percent for 14 straight months. In effect, that’s what we would be doing if we didn’t institute this break. Unfortunately that means that they won’t be available for their clubs but I think the bigger pictures is that we’re playing for a world championship.”

Fortunately for Hackworth and the U-17 ’88 players, many of the club coaches are very understanding of the situation. Don Ebert is head coach and Director of Coaching for the Irvine Strikers of Irvine, Calif. With the mandatory break, Ebert loses three players as Carlos Borja, Kyle Nakazawa and Ernesto Mariscal are all members of the U-17 Men’s National Team.

“I’m in complete agreement,” said Ebert. “I view the guys in Residency program as U.S. Soccer players. They’re not our players right now, they have a job to do.”

While Hackworth’s concern is that the National Team may be perceived as “taking” players from their clubs, Ebert says clubs can always adjust and have been playing without the National Team players for the majority of the year anyway (due to full-time Residency).

“We make plans,” Ebert said. “John was very upfront. He let us know early and he let us know why. When you understand it and you understand his position and you’re told in a manner that makes sense, it’s easier. Country before club is a slam dunk.”