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U-18 Men's National Team: Building a Solid Back Line

John Ellinger, head coach for the U.S. Under-17 ’87 Men’s National Team, has a bit of a dilemma. He toiled for more than a year building his defensive backline of Greg Folk, Julian Valentin, Tim Ward and Nathan Sturgis, a defensive unit that has been one of his best.

But now after all that work into building a squad to stop any team they face, he has to figure out a way to beat them. All four players were invited in for the U.S. Under-18 MNT camp being held in Bradenton, Fla., this week and on Friday afternoon they will face their coach as they take on the U-17 ’88 MNT.

“How do suppose I beat them,” Ellinger quipped during the U-17 ‘88s practice at IMG on Thursday.

The building of the defensive backline began in 2002 as Ellinger began looking for the players that would fill out his ’87 team after the ’86 team graduated and moved on to college or the professional ranks. He already had two pieces of the puzzle set in central defenders Valentin and Ward as they were invited into U.S. Soccer’s Residency in the fall of 2002, and he had already decided Greg Folk would get the invite in 2003, but he was still missing the final piece of the puzzle.

It was Dec. of 2002 and the U-17 MNT was playing Region IV in the Disney Soccer Showcase and Sturgis had sold Ellinger that he would be the last defender to complete his ’87 back four. The coach had been watching Sturgis with the Florida ODP team as well, but now he was sure down the road he’d invite him into U.S. Soccer’s Residency program.

“When we first played the Florida ODP ‘87s, Nathan really just stood out,” Ellinger said. “We didn’t have him (or Greg Folk) in Residency, but we knew we wanted them to fill out our back four.”

In the July of 2003, the four got to play together for the first time when Sturgis and Folk were invited to join the U-17 ‘87s when they competed in the U-17 International Youth Tournament in England. While the ‘87s started off great with a win over England 2-1 and then a 1-1 draw with Brazil, the first match all four actually started wasn’t what you’d expect from the unit these days as the Portugal found the net three times and shutout the U.S. 

Despite the rocky beginning, a few months later Sturgis and Folk were officially sent papers inviting them into Residency and Ellinger’s backline for the ‘87s was complete.

The backline hit a setback as Ward was sidelined for a couple months with a sports hernia, but by January of this year he was healthy once again and inserted back into the starting lineup. Since then, the U-17 ‘87s have gone 7-1-2, while allowing fourteen goals for a goal against average of 1.40. At first allowing a goal and a half might not seem to stellar, but considering the competition it’s evidence of the good play in the back. The U.S. has faced three MLS squads, the L.A. Galaxy, Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew, and two of the top college programs in UCLA and Clemson.

Valentin said the best thing about the group is that they have chemistry, something that can’t really work on in the same way as spacing or marking.

“In a way it’s kind of a sixth sense when were out on the field,” Valentin said.

Folk agreed, saying from the start he could tell they would be able to play well together.

“I can definitely say there is a connection there,” said Folk, who had played with the U-17 national team in the 2003 Dallas Cup before being called into Residency. “You can feel it out on the field as we don’t have to think as much, we just know where the other guy will be or do.”

The fact that there is such cohesiveness on the field is a little odd, considering all four players have their own unique style. Sturgis is a very exciting player that is known for getting up from the backline and getting into the attack. Ward has been getting more looks on free kicks because as Ellinger says “he has a cannon of a foot and is incredibly accurate with it.” Valentin is one of the most vocal players on the pitch, is incredibly intense and a great leader. And Folk is one of the best one-on-one defenders and tacklers on the team.

“The thing I really like about us is that we have four really different styles that come together really well,” Valentin said. “I think that’s one of the big things, that we can each add something to the group that makes us better as a whole.”

What binds them together though is that even when they are off the field, they are hanging out together.

“We’re there for each other, on and off the field,” Sturgis said. “We hang out together and Jules makes us laugh. He is also so positive, and it is the same with all of us. We’re all really positive and don’t get down on each other.”

Ellinger likens the ‘87s to the defenders he had last year with him at the U-17 World Championship in Finland as he could choose from Chris Germani, Jonathan Spector, Adrian Chevannes, Brandon Owens, Kyle Helton and Steven Curfman. And he’s hoping these players can give the U.S. MNT a solid backline for the future.

“The last two groups are going to be a good nucleus to work with as they move on through the national team ranks,” he said. “It is definitely something to build on.”