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The U.S. U-17 MNT Coaches' Road to the CONCACAF Crown

When the U.S. U-17 MNT traveled to Montego Bay, Jamaica, in late February for the 2011 CONCACAF U-17 Championship, it had two goals in mind: qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup and win the continental crown.

The format of the tournament deemed that the winners of all four quarterfinal matches would qualify for the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico. In order to even make it to the final eight though, the U.S. had to get past Cuba and Panama in Group B play.

CoachesNet caught up with top assistant coach Paul Caffrey to take an inside look at the USA’s run to the CONCACAF crown.

Roster Selection

The U.S. U-17 MNT is in the unique situation of having a 40-player group train daily in the team’s Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. With the coaching staff’s daily access to a majority of their player pool, selecting rosters for important international tournaments rests on how well players perform every day.

Paul Caffrey: To be honest, it’s usually not us, the coaches, who choose rosters. The players usually identify themselves based on their performance on the field. We observe them closely on the field with regards to their technique and how aware they are tactically. We also observe them in the weight room, and how their fitness is progressing and ultimately it becomes obvious who the top 16-17 players are. The remaining roster decisions are usually made based on positions and who the staff thinks we will need in order to be successful.

Going into qualifying we knew we were well organized defensively and tactically we felt strong. We decided to take five forwards in order to give us more options offensively.  We wanted to be sure that we had different options when it came to trying to score goals.  Physically we felt confident that we were going to be one of the fittest teams at the tournament, so that was not a concern for us.

U.S. Under-17 MNT Roster by Position
GOALKEEPERS (2): Kendall McIntosh (Mustang Academy; Santa Rosa, Calif.), Fernando Piña (Houston Dynamo; Houston, Texas)
DEFENDERS (6): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas; Plano, Texas), Joe Amon (South Carolina United FC; Summerville, S.C.), Zach Carroll (Vardar; Grand Blanc, Mich.), Mobi Fehr (Tokyo Verdy 1969; Tokyo, Japan), Nathan Smith (Cal Odyssey; Clovis, Calif.), Andrew Souders (Crew Soccer Academy; Amherst, Ohio)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Jordan Allen (Empire United; Rochester, N.Y.), Matt Dunn (FC Köln; Dallas, Texas), Alejandro Guido (Aztecs Premier; Chula Vista, Calif.), Marc Pelosi (De Anza Force; Sunnyvale, Calif.), Esteban Rodriguez (Cosmos Academy West; Palmdale, Calif.), Tarik Salkicic (Strictly Soccer; Pinellas Park, Fla.), Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids Academy; Brighton, Colo.)
FORWARDS (5): Paul Arriola (Arsenal FC; Chula Vista, Calif.), Alfred Koroma (Solar Chelsea SC; Arlington, Texas), Jack McBean (LA Galaxy; Newport Beach, Calif.), Andrew Oliver (Westside United; Indianapolis, Ind.), Mario Rodriguez (Central Aztecs; North Hollywood, Calif.)

The Group Games

With the roster finalized, the U.S. team headed to Montego Bay. Just weeks earlier, Cabrera had taken his team in a week-long training camp in the area and played two matches against Jamaica at Jarrett Park  to prepare.

Aside from the familiarity with their surroundings, however, the U.S. players were about to play in the most important games of their career. No U.S. U-17 MNT has ever failed to qualify for the World Cup at this age level – a high standard for 15- and 16-year-olds to live up to.

PC: It was advantageous for us that we played in Jamaica  a few weeks before the tournament began. The team was familiar with their surroundings and the environment and that was helpful in preparation for the tournament.  

In preparation for the tournament our main concern with was whether we’d be able to play our style of soccer based on the conditions of the field.  We are a team that puts an emphasis on possession and we like to play technical soccer passing the ball on the ground, and the fields in Jamaica made that brand of soccer very difficult to play. The fields suited teams that put more of an emphasis on defending because it is easier to break up a teams attack when the conditions are poor.  In the first game, the players were understandably nervous but Wilmer told the players that they had trained hard for this moment and were well prepared to be successful; it was just a matter of managing those nerves and playing the game you are capable of playing.

Though the U.S. topped Cuba 3-1, the coaching staff was disappointed with the team’s overall performance. The positives that the team took from the game were scoring three goals and, of course, picking up a win despite not playing well. To assure itself of a place in the World Cup, the team would have to make significant improvement.

Overall, we’d say we did not play as well as we could have against Cuba. Although, the Cubans were not a bad team and played well, but we were disappointed because we knew we were better than our performance showed. We were disappointed in not being able to maintain possession of the ball as well as we usually do. The thought process was to progressively get better and better, and to get over those nerves. We had to find a way to play our game as best we could considering the difficult conditions.

Against Panama, our game improved. Obviously, they were a good team, an organized team, finishing third in the tournament and qualifying for the World Cup.

During the game Panama sat back against us, making it difficult for us to break them down, but we played better soccer. We moved the ball well and did a good job keeping possession and the team played with more patience than they had against Cuba. We felt that we had gotten closer to how we’d like to play, so that was a positive for us. It was a tough game and it was only a 1-0 win, but we definitely knew when we finished that we were on the right track. We were getting better.

The Quarterfinal

With the two wins, the U.S. finished in the top place in the tournament’s Group B to set up a quarterfinal clash against El Salvador. After their first match against Haiti was cancelled, the Salvadorans had just played a difficult game against Costa Rica, losing 3-2 to finish in second place of Group A.

PC: We had gained confidence going into the El Salvador game. We proved against Panama that it was possible for us, even on these fields, to be play smart soccer and do the things we had worked on for so long and be successful against El Salvador.

For the players, this was the biggest game of their lives. It was essentially a final where the loser was going home and the winner was going to the World Cup. I’ve seen many finals in my time and people tend to come away saying that they were disappointed with the quality of the game, or maybe even that it was an ugly game. But that’s typical of a game like that because so much is on the line and with that there is always an element of nerves.  Wilmer let the players know that they didn’t have to be nervous because they were well prepared.

In preparation for El Salvador, we used video sessions to reinforce the things we had done well and identify areas where we still needed to improve. The message was that if we play the way we can play, and if we continue to do the things the way we were capable of doing, that we’d be successful against El Salvador. We also wanted to emphasize that even though El Salvador had played one game less than us, we felt we were physically stronger, and that we were the better team. If we played our game, we could be successful.

The Biggest Game: Choosing a Lineup

PC: The midfield was our regular starting midfield for that game. Nathan Smith did not have one of his better games against Cuba so Joe Amon came in and did very well against Panama, to solidify that spot for the match against El Salvador. Kellyn Acosta stayed at left back. Mario [Rodriguez] had just recovered from an injury before the tournament and during the course of the other two games, he probably wasn’t as good as he’d been on the lead up to qualifying. Wilmer gave the start to Alfred Koroma and Andrew Oliver, who had been causing problems for other teams right from the start of this tournament. Those were the only real changes we made. With that, we knew that it was a different look for our attack and that Mario would be a good option off the bench.

Adjustments in Extra Time

The U.S. and El Salvador both scored early and it was 1-1 after 10 minutes of the quarterfinal. After the initial exchanges, the U.S. dominated the game but was unable to put another one past a determined opponent. Heading into overtime tied at one goal apiece, the U.S. had only used one substitute – a tactical move that would prove invaluable as extra time wore on.

The U.S. scored just five minutes into overtime and made it a two-goal lead in the 112th minute. That’s when things got interesting.

PC: We had only used one sub heading into overtime, bringing Mario on for Alfred Koroma, and that decision was based on what was happening on the field.  We felt Mario could give us different attacking options and help the team find a way to score, which he did. 

Marc Pelosi added a third goal to give us a 3-1 lead. We were planning to bring on Zach Carroll because El Salvador were probably going to start launching balls into the box when Kellyn Acosta received his second yellow card and was ejected. We felt Zach was still the best option and were planning on putting him in for Andrew Oliver to solidify a back four since we were ahead at that point. From the ensuing free kick, our goalkeeper did something silly and immature with an unnecessary high kick towards their center forward.  It was a challenge that we knew could result in a red card, so very quickly Coach Grafer started warming up Kendall.   

The referee did send Fernando off along with one of there players for retaliation and awarded them a penalty.

Wilmer and I talked quickly about who was struggling physically at that point and who we needed to keep on the field to help us defend with only nine players. As a result, Guido came off for Kendall, who had the difficult task of entering the game and facing a penalty kick. El Salvador converted the penalty, but didn’t threaten our goal after that.

in Jamaica

El Salvador scored that penalty in overtime to cut the score to 3-2, but the U.S. would hold on to win with nine men and seal a place in Mexico. The following day, Jamaica topped Honduras to book their own place at the World Cup and set up a huge semifinal match. It would be the USA vs. Jamaica, and the sold-out crowd at Catherine Hall Stadium did everything they could to help the Reggae Boyz go for the upset.

PC: After the quarterfinal match we did have to regroup a bit. We knew we were in the World Cup at this point, so we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to play in such a charged atmosphere. Unfortunately, we don’t get enough games in that kind of atmosphere to prepare for the World Cup. Wilmer gave Zach Carroll, who is very strong in the air, his first start of the tournament. Jamaica liked to serve balls into the box from free kicks and long throws, we felt Zach could help us defend those aerial attacks.   In addition it gave us an opportunity to see how Zach would respond to that atmosphere; it was an invaluable opportunity for his and everyone’s development.  Kendall Mc Intosh, Tarik Salkicic and Jack Mc Bean also got their first starts of the tournament with Nathan Smith getting his second start. All four players did very well emphasing how important it is to have a good squad.

The atmosphere against Jamaica was tremendous, and we thought it was a very good game from our players. As much as Jamaica made it difficult for us- they were physical and athletic- the guys did very well under the circumstances. I thought we frustrated them with our possession as we kept moving the ball well. Additionally, Wilmer had addressed their aerial threat in training and how we would defend against it. Our players executed the plan very well not allowing them to cause us any problems on set pieces. We didn’t put them away until late in the game, but it was a very positive game for us and it was a great experience. We had been hoping to get to play Jamaica in Jamaica because the fan base would be more evident than any other game. In terms of development, it would have been unfortunate not to have the chance to play against them and have that experience.

After a 10th minute goal from Marc Pelosi, a committed Jamaican team used their home support to stymie the U.S. attack. While Jamaica pushed for the equalizer late in the game, Andrew Oliver finished a great build up in the second minute of stoppage time. McIntosh and the U.S. defense picked up the shutout and the U.S. earned a 2-0 victory.

Since we just don’t play in those hostile environments often, you really get to see which players can and cannot handle it. Sometimes players surprise themselves at how well they were able to deal with difficult situations. As a result, once they get through it they have that confidence for the next time they may experience it. Overall, this helps prepare the players for future games when they will face similar circumstances.

The Final

Canada was the other team turning heads in Montego Bay, and booked a place in the championship match without giving up a single goal. A 2-0 victory against Trinidad & Tobago sealed Canada’s first place in the FIFA U-17 World Cup since 1999, and a 1-0 win against Panama set up an all-North American showdown for the CONCACAF U-17 Championship.

The approach to the game against Canada was similar to the approach against El Salvador. We had improved with every game and felt confident going into the final.  Once again we had used some video analysis to remind players of their positive play and point out some defensive situations were we had to ensure we kept our concentration.

There were many lessons learned during the four games. Physically we were still very strong, even though we had played an overtime game and Canada hadn’t. We still felt like we were the better team physically and that if we played our game and kept our heads, even with some changes, we would be CONCACAF champions.

Matt Dunn was back for that game. Dillon Serna was fresh so he started in place of the suspended Alejandro Guido and Zach Carroll started again. We also thought we’d give Mario another start to see how he did.

Ultimately, this was a final and as stated before, they can be very tough games.  Canada was a good team, and up to that point, no team had scored on them.  They had some good players, and in talking with their coaches, they felt that it was one of the best teams they’ve had in a long time.   In the first half some of our players seemed a little nervous and tentative, and as a result, presented Canada with some chances.

We made a tactical sub at halftime replacing Andrew Souders with Mobi Fehr at center back and then a second sub early into the second half. Dillon wasn’t having as much of an impact on the game as we would have liked from his position. Guido wasn’t available, so we decided to change it up and see if Alfred could help us make things happen. These decisions were made early; it was a final and we were trying to win.

We added Jack with similar intentions in mind. We wanted to create options going forward finding other ways to penetrate and score some goals and Jack was instrumental having a hand in all three subsequent goals. We ended up outshooting Canada 11-3, but had to wait for OT to put them away.

McBean came on and set up all three goals in the overtime period. The first was Nathan Smith’s stunner – a curling ball from 35 yards away that sailed perfectly into the upper corner of the goal just two minutes in. Andrew Oliver and second-half substitute Alfred Koroma also scored for the U.S. in the 30-minute span.

Nate Smith’s goal was spectacular and effectively ended the game. Canada had put forth so much effort and fought so hard that they were totally deflated after that goal and then we were able to over run them. They were dropping to the field and cramping, being stretched out. Once they got to that point, there was no coming back.

At the end of the tournament, we were the team that played the most minutes including two overtimes. We didn’t have anyone go down with cramps, pulled muscles or injuries. We felt that in the 30 minutes of overtime against Canada, we were better prepared physically and that helped us win the championship.  In the end, it was the strength of our squad that mattered the most.  In the final we had Jack come off the bench and have three assists, Mobi came on and made us more secure in the back, and Alfred came off the bench to score the third goal.  Out of a squad of twenty, nineteen players played a role in winning CONCACAF.  The only player that didn’t play was Paul Arriola because of an injury he picked up in training.

One thing that became obvious during the tournament was that all of these teams had good resources for scouting. They had seen our Nike Friendlies games in December, and had seen a DVD of us play against Spain. They had done their homework on us and were well-prepared for our guys. They knew a lot about our team. These facts made winning the tournament all the more satisfying. We had set out to win five games because we felt we were good enough to do so and we accomplished our goal.

The 3-0 win sealed the first CONCACAF championship for the U.S. at this age group since 1992 (CONCACAF did not crown a champion from 1996-2007, opting for separate qualifying groups that did not crossover to play for a championship title).

Overall, the U.S. had outscored their opponents 12-3 and held three shutouts in five wins. Under Cabrera and his staff, the U.S. Under-17s are undefeated in CONCACAF U-17 qualifying with an 8-0-0 record during the past two cycles and has 24 goals scored compared to only five against.