w/ U-17 MNT Graduates
A monthly feature about a U.S. Men’s, Women’s or Youth National Team player whose performance or potential calls for that bright, shining spotlight. This month, it falls to the recent Under-17 Men’s National Team graduating class heading from their Bradenton oasis out into the real world of soccer.
The endorsements with Nike and Sierra Mist. A spot in the chair and a stupid human trick on “The Late Show.” The ridiculous hype that surrounds him in every city he goes.
Freddy Adu couldn’t have seen this coming.
Just two years ago, the Ghanaian-born 12-year-old was taking his first steps onto the IMG Academy campus in Bradenton, Fla., after his mother decided the best move for her eldest son was to allow him to enter U.S. Soccer’s Residency Program. He was excited to train and play on a daily basis with the U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team, but wasn’t really sure what to expect.A hundred training sessions later, Adu can look back today and know one thing for sure.
“I’m blessed,” said Adu, who had his final day in Bradenton in late March before moving up the East Coast to be with D.C. United. “To have the opportunity to be in (Residency) has gotten me to where I am now.”
“When I first got down there, I was a completely different player. I had the talent, but I didn’t really use it right. Coach (John) Ellinger guided me in the right way and basically taught me how to play with the team. He taught me how to use my talent to my advantage, with my quickness and my skill. I’ve worked for two years, and that is why I am where I am.”
Along with Adu, 12 of his U-17 ’87 teammates will be leaving Residency after graduating on May 21 and taking their skills to either the college level, MLS, or possibly even overseas. While not every player will see the endorsement deals, get hounded by the media daily or have to try to live up to a mountain of expectations, they all acknowledge that the time spent in Residency has made the biggest impact in their improvement as players.
“I think it is pretty apparent how much better I’ve gotten over the last two years,” said defender Julian Valentin, who started Residency in the fall of ’02 and will be hitting the books and the soccer field at Wake Forest in less than five months. “In terms of decision-making I’m a lot better, which I think I can take into the college game.”
Michael Bradley, who like Adu was drafted in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft, is playing under his dad with the MetroStars. He attributes a lot of his progress over the past two years to his U-17 coaches, Ellinger, John Hackworth and to a lesser degree Keith Fulk, who joined the Residency staff in the fall of 2003.
“Right from the beginning they encouraged me to be a two-way player, not to just play when our team had the ball,” said Bradley, who has also been involved with the U-18 and U-20 MNTs. “They taught me when we didn’t have the ball to work hard, be an honest player and defend. They never let me take a break when we didn’t have the ball and I think that helped me out a lot.”For goalkeeper Stephen Sandbo, his one-on-one daily interaction with goalkeeping coach Peter Mellor has been a huge influence on him.
“He’s like no coach I’ve had before because he lets you choose how to be goalkeeper and doesn’t say you have to catch like this or dive like this, he lets you do it your own way,” said Sandbo, who is off to SMU this fall. “He’s definitely been a great coach and friend.”
Danny Szetela has been in Residency since the fall of ’02 and since then has received a lot of interest from major clubs in England and just last week trained with Everton, where it appeared he made a good impression. The hard-nosed midfielder with Polish citizenship said his two years in Bradenton have allowed for all the opportunities he’s reaping now.
“The fitness, the best coaches, the great competition every day really helped me out,” said Szetela. “I think coach Ellinger and Hackworth are really knowledgeable and know the game so well. They are able to explain everything to me clearly and their coaching really helped me out a lot.”
It’s comments like these that solidify what has been apparent since the Residency Program began at IMG Academy in Bradenton back in January of 1999 – it works.
Almost immediately, U.S. Soccer saw the benefits from having the U-17 MNT train on a daily basis. Ten months after its inception, the U-17s stormed their way through the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship, winning their group and advancing to the semifinals only to lose in a heart-breaking shootout with Australia and eventually finish in fourth place (still the best showing by a Men’s Youth National Team in a major international competition).
In the next World Championship in ’01, the U.S. got a bit unlucky and was drawn into the “Group of Death,” having to face Japan, eventual runner-up Nigeria and champion France, and did not advance out of group play. In Finland ’03 though, the U.S. bounced back to a fifth place finish after winning their first two group games to solidify advancement to the second round.
While the improvements are apparent on the field, the players continually speak about how they have been able to grow off the field during their time in Residency.
“I think the biggest thing is coming in here I was really timid and I relied on my parents for a lot of things, but two years later I’ve become independent and can do a lot of things on my own,” said Sandbo. “I’m just comfortable making decisions for myself, so I’ve matured in that respect.”Valentin, who writes a journal about his life in Residency for ussoccer.com called “The Valentin Chronicles,” said during his time in Bradenton he’s become “a lot more mature and independent.” Well, as mature as a 17-year-old can be.
When you’re a 16-year-old kid living in Bradenton, Fla., and the majority of residents were last called a teenager sometime in the ‘60s (according to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau, 25.4 percent of Bradeton’s 49,504 residents are 65 or older), one thing you need to be able to do is keep yourself entertained.
For Valentin that meant accepting any dare from his roommates that dealt with food. From being dared to jam a huge hamburger in his mouth at one time to drinking a liquid concoction consisting of everything and anything teammates Bradley, Tim Ward and Marcus Rein could find, Valentin was willing to do anything for a laugh and keep everyone entertained.
“There have been a lot of good times and it is hard to pick just one,” said Valentin. “I think the stupid little things we do to pass time, such as some of the eating stunts and that type of thing. Looking back it’s kind of stupid at the time, but it’s actually pretty fun.”
It may be stupid, but that’s why they love it. It builds camaraderie and lasting friendships.
“Being able to live together off the field was so much fun,” said Bradley amid laughter. “Some of the stupid stuff we did to amuse ourselves in Bradenton is stuff that only we think is funny, but it kept us pretty amused.”
All the players agree that living together, training together day-in and day-out and traveling to places like South Korea, Finland and Northern Ireland together has been an experience of a lifetime. One they hope will continue as they move on to the Under-20s, Under-23s and possibly the full MNT some day as they believe the U.S. is on its way to being a major force in the soccer world.
“It definitely looks like everything is picking up,” said Valentin. “If you look at the international soccer scene five years ago compared to now, it is a profound difference. In terms of youth development, in years past people didn’t even know we had a U-17 National Team and I think it is definitely a good precursor of the future of soccer in America.”
And the graduates know first-hand that the one sure-fire way for young players to get to a higher level is to continue to come through programs such as U.S. Soccer’s Residency.
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