U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team head coach John Hackworth held a teleconference on Friday, Sept. 22 from Bradenton, Fla. where the U-17’s have trained for the past week before the final World Cup roster was selected on Thursday, Sept. 21. Next, the team will travel to Dubai for a seven-day pre-World Cup camp before traveling to India on Oct. 1 for the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup in India, running from Oct. 6-28. The USA will begin its quest to win the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup on Friday, Oct. 6 against India (10:30 a.m. ET; FS2, UNIVERSO).
“This has been a fantastic process, but a difficult one. The reason I think it’s fantastic is because the quality and depth in this particular age group, and not only that but in the 2001s, and we recently had George Bello, who is a 2002 in camp with us; it has just been really, from my perspective, great that there’s so much quality out there in this particular age group. Difficult, because obviously the guys are fighting for spots and we, over the course of the last cycle, had approximately one hundred players into our camps and environment and play games with us, which was, again, a fantastic thing for us in our player development and posed some serious challenges for our staff when we had to try to slim down our selections for the roster. We did this over several camps in the last two months and we tried to narrow the roster each time so the last selection that occurred in the last two days was extremely difficult. It could have gone a lot of different ways. In the end, we feel really confident in the group of players that we’re taking to India.”
On the four players on the roster who were not part of the qualifying roster:
“First off, Tyler Shaver is a centerback and he was in Residency last year, meaning before this final year of preparation. Unfortunately, last summer he tore his PCL and that basically took him out for nine months. He did not come back and wasn’t released to train until the end of the semester here in Residency in late May. His first international trip was the trip we took to Argentina in June (2017). Before that, he was one of our top centerbacks. So, while he might be a new name, he’s somebody that has been with us and in the earlier part of this cycle was a really important player and had proven himself.
“The next kid, Jacobo Reyes, is a young man out of Houston, Texas, and then moved to Monterrey and has been part of their youth development system there. He was in a previous Youth National Team camp at U-14. We had invited him to several opportunities last year but just with his club, we couldn’t make it work. However, they allowed him to come on that (same) trip in Argentina in early June and he really impressed our staff. He fit in immediately with the players. He proved that the quality of player and person is what we were looking for and he fit a need. I think that has been a nice find for us rather late in the process. He is versatile. As a staff, when we were making some of those difficult decisions, the fact that he could play anywhere across the front three and also in an attacking midfielder role certainly gave him an advantage over some others.
“Sergiño Dest, out of Ajax, was with us in two camps last year. He played in the 2016 Nike Friendlies with us in, actually, more in a reserve role, but is a very talented, attacking outside back. He plays on the right or left. So, we’ve added some depth there. And then the last one is Alex Budnik, who has been with us the entire time, just did not make the qualifying roster because we only took two goalkeepers at that time.”
On whether this is the most talent the U.S. has ever taken to the FIFA U-17 World Cup, and whether it’s an anomaly or if the level of talent will continue to grow:
“As far as this being the most talented roster to take as a U-17 team, I can only reflect, this is the fourth time I will have gone to a U-17 World Cup. I was with John Ellinger as his assistant in 2003, a team that had some extremely good players: Jonathan Spector, Freddy Adu, Memo Gonzalez. There were some guys that had very good careers on that team, like Eddie Gavin and Danny Szetela. The next cycle, I was the head coach for, and interestingly enough, whether it was media or it was coaches, the idea was that that wasn’t a very talented team and yet it was one of the better teams. We lost to Holland in the quarterfinals. We really should have beaten them on that day. And that team had some players that, at the time, nobody was talking about, you know: Omar Gonzalez, Jozy Altidore, Neven Subotic, and there were others, too, that had a really long career. To answer your question, specifically, I look at Richie’s (Williams) team in the cycle, and man, you know, there was so much talent on that team. I think that this team is comparable to the type of quality that Richie had. Therefore, the expectation on that team and this team is very high.
“I think it’s a really positive sign that there has been the level of talent that we’re seeing coming through the ranks. For me, I say the word depth a lot and I could give you the numbers and everything that we’ve looked at but really that is the best sign, for me, because there is so much different maturation and growth that is going to occur. And, each player, they all know each other. They’re competing with each other in the Development Academy every weekend, they’re competing for spots every time they come into a national team camp. The guys that didn’t make this roster, that were potentially close to making this roster, they’re going to go back and they’re going to be so motivated to prove that they should have been on this roster. And that’s where I think is a really good formula to have a player-driven program where the development occurs because the growth of those individuals is always at such a high, competitive nature. I’m very optimistic about the growth and development I see here with the Development Academy and a lot of reasons, things that we’ve done at U.S. Soccer and a lot of integration of our Youth National Team staff, having full-time coaches at every age group. There are so many reasons, but from where I sit, I feel nothing but confidence about that player development process.”
On taking Ulysses Llanez as an alternate and if there is anyone on the roster injured or if he is just being taken as a precaution?
“No, no one’s going in with an injury at all. We’re taking Uly number one, because he deserves it. He’s a younger kid. He’s a year younger than most of these guys. He didn’t come into our (Residency) program specifically for other reasons, but he had done such a fantastic job that along the way, he knocked out a lot of guys that were above him and honestly, we thought would be here.
"So, full credit to Uly that he’s done that. And then look, we have until October 5 if something happens, so it’s just smart planning in my opinion to take a player like Uly who you want to invest in, you want to keep in our program as much as we can. That’s, I think, what our number one priority is, is player development. And then we’ve done this so that means he’s with us through the opening game of the World Cup and what a wonderful experience for him if something doesn’t happen.
"Since you brought up the injury, I want to mention the fact that we did have an injury to one of our key players, that’s AJ Vasquez. He was hurt during the first game in the Czech Republic when we were playing Hungary and he was, for the last year and a half, such a key part of this team that it’s going to be tough to replace him. Our whole team is very motivated to do well just because we feel such a deep connection to what he did for this group. There is a player and there are others too, but specifically AJ was such an important piece to our team going into it, and unfortunately, he was injured and won’t be able to be with us."
On the 2001 age group and the three 2001 players specifically:
“This is just my philosophy. When I first got hired at U.S. Soccer and Bruce Arena was the Men’s National Team coach and he said ‘Look, you’re going to be working with the Under-17 team and that age group is specifically an even birth year age group, but don’t forget about the kids that are a year younger and will just have been, not because of any fault of their own, but they’re at the relative same age as talented as some of the older players.’
"So, if I think back to taking Jozy to the World Cup in Peru, it was with the same idea that we need to have some of those younger, very talented players because this is the only chance they have to play in the Under-17 World Cup and players like Indiana Vassilev and Taylor Booth and Bryan Reynolds, really they all should hopefully, just like the 2000s, that I mentioned previously, should push each other in all the right ways because when they get to the senior level, age is now irrelevant and the physical and mental maturation that there’s a little imbalance at this point, when it gets to that senior level, hopefully we’ve done a really good job investing across the board, not just in one specific age group. That’s the philosophy behind it.”
On how Josh Sargent has grown as a player and a person and how he has evolved as a player within this group:
“Well, I think this is a big challenge for Josh because it’s going to be difficult for him. Look, the only way that he can improve on his Under-20 performance is to win the Golden Boot at the Under-17 World Cup and that is, hands-down, an incredibly tough challenge.
"What I really like about Josh and his development and having these experiences at the U-20 World Cup is that he doesn’t let that change his daily focus on how he goes about his job at trying to get better. I mean, he’s very confident in his ability, his work ethic is excellent. He’s also a very humble person, so he doesn’t let any of that, get in the way of the fact that he is motivated on a regular, daily basis to get better. He’s a good person off-the-field, he’s our captain, one of our captains, our leaders and when he comes back to our team and he did that with us in this whole preparation and build-up, it’s just important that he fits right back in, and you wouldn’t know, he doesn’t bring an (attitude) like he’s done anything different than any of the rest of these guys. So that’s a credit to him and the way that he approaches his position within this team and his own development.”
On how he sees the competition in the first round and how he’s going to prepare differently for each opponent:
“All three of those games present different challenges to us. We’ve played India once before, we were successful against them, but it wasn’t in the opening game of the World Cup, it wasn’t them hosting a World Cup. My feeling is that, and from the information I’ve heard, there’s going to be a very loud crowd. They are already, above anything else, an incredibly athletic and hard-working team. We are going to have to beat the host country in the opening game with a lot of the ceremony around that and that is a difficult challenge.
"And then we shift to Ghana, which is one of the perennial powers, especially at this level. And that is a different contest. And then we face a Colombia team that is a combination of technique and creativity and some really good athleticism. So, I think we have, in our group, you’re going to really have to manage each game on an individual basis and it’s going to be difficult. At the same time, we feel confident about this. We beat 10 of the teams that are in this tournament and some of those teams are some of the best teams in the world. We have reason to believe that we can compete with anybody. Obviously now, we have to go prove that in the most important method (at this age group).”