By Kyle McCarthy
Consider this successful year as the culmination of extensive planning for the future of the United States Men’s Youth National Team program. U.S. Soccer spent considerable time and energy during the past few years identifying the strengths and weaknesses within the program and continue establishing a framework to improve player development for the long term.
Brick by brick, the pieces for the future went into place. The expansion of the Development Academy and the refinements to the calendar provided the framework on the club level. The introduction of additional youth national teams supplied the natural next step to ensure those successful players transitioned into the national team setup.
This year offered the first opportunity to bring all of the components together. The arrival of Under-16 and Under-19 Youth National Teams in this calendar year filled out the developmental pathway from the U-14 level all the way through the U-20 level.
The long-anticipated implementation allowed U.S. Soccer to fully integrate its youth setup for the first time and paved the way for notable successes on the field across the age groups this year, according to U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director and Under-20 Coach Tab Ramos.
“Integration as a whole doesn’t just happen on the field,” Ramos told ussoccer.com. “It’s the communication and discussion amongst the staff, the managing of our depth charts, rosters and ideas, and ultimately having the same goal. It has really worked out well. Everything that gets taken from the first team gets passed down. We look at all our players from the Under-14s through our Under-20s as one big pool being prepared at different stages to one day represent us at the highest level. Ultimately, our main priority is to produce players for the Senior Team.
The presence of Youth National Teams in every age group falls in line with the standards set forth around the world and permits technical staffers to assess each player in a broader context.
It isn’t just about building a team at the under-17 or under-20 level anymore. It is about broadening the talent pool and figuring out how to tailor the developmental path of promising players along the way.
“It is very, very important to us because some players are breaking through earlier and some need some extra time,” United States Men’s National Team Coach and Technical Director Jurgen Klinsmann said. “We see that on the senior level as well. Having organized that through Tab Ramos and his entire staff in Chicago, it is huge. In the long run, I think it will help us tremendously.”
Part of the calculus inevitably involves how players perform with their clubs. Promising prospects excel at that level and find themselves thrust into different challenges along the way. Their success in their natural age group often prompts an opportunity to feature in a more advanced age group in order to accelerate the learning curve and test his skills in a more demanding situation.
Ramos is quick to point out how the ability to move a player up or down seamlessly increases the depth of the player pool. The players face increased competition within their cohort, but they also know they have a natural place to advance if they perform to the necessary standards.
“More than ever before, we are seeing the benefits of the Development Academy really come through,” Ramos said. “For example, this past year we know that about 90 percent of all youth national team call-ups are from Development Academy clubs. That’s already a great thing. We have encouraged Development Academy clubs to play their players up an age group. That gives us an indication of who can be successful at the national team level because the game is faster and the physicality of the game is a little bit stronger an age group up. It prepares them for the international game.”
The results across the board this year reflect the importance of those strides. The U-15 and U-16 sides have combined to defeat Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay during this calendar year. Every single team between the U-17 and U-20 levels has won an important international tournament, with the U-18s managing to run through their matches against club and international sides with a sterling 13-0 record.
Although results are not the primary measuring stick for a program ultimately tasked with developing players for the senior national team, they do underscore the benefits of integrating the system and nurturing players along the way.
“This year, our Youth National Teams have done really well, in particular in international tournaments against great competition,” Ramos said. “We feel very proud of our progress, not just in terms of the development of the players, but the results on the field.”
The movement remains an ongoing process as Ramos and the rest of the U.S. youth coaches attempt to build on this increasingly stable foundation and push the program forward. There is an increased emphasis on trying to implement a high pressure, risk-taking style throughout the Youth National Team system in a bid to prepare players for the next stages of their careers.
At its core, the U.S. Youth National setup exists to produce world-class players capable of producing at the highest levels for both club and country. The introduction of this unified youth system gives players the tools to advance through the pathway and establish their credentials for further pursuits down the line.
“This means a lot to us because we really want to be connected with every age group in order to help them,” Klinsmann said. “Not only on the field to make them better soccer players, but we want to make sure we can feed them with good information to make sure they understand what it takes, one day, to hopefully become a professional player. That’s overall our goal with the Youth National Teams: feed these players into the senior national team, sooner or later, no matter what professional path they are going to choose. If it is in MLS, if it is in Liga MX or if it is in Europe, it doesn’t really matter. We want to make sure they are prepared for the future going through our Youth National Teams.”
Those benefits only arrive with patience and an unwavering commitment to player development through continuing to invest time in targeted youth initiatives, having a dedicated staff focused on our elite youth players, and sticking to a unified philosophical approach. For now, the early returns on and off the field from this integrated system indicate the potential of success in the years ahead.
|| 2-0 W
|| 1-1 D
|| *won in penalties
|| 2-1 W
|U17|| 44th Mondial Minimes Football
|| *defeated France
| AIFF Youth Tournament
|| Runner up
|| *lost in overtime in the final to Korea Republic
| Aegean Cup
|| Runner up
|| *lost to hosts Turkey in the final
|U18|| Vaclav Jazek Tournament
|| Czech Republic
|| *defeated Slovakia, Hungary, Russia, Czech Republic
| Slovakia Cup
|| *defeated Russia in the final
|U20|| NTC Invitational
|| Los Angeles
||*defeated Costa Rica, Panama, Jamaica|