In the finale of the 2017 Men’s Nike International Friendlies, the U.S. U-17 Men’s National Team headed into halftime down 1-0 to Brazil. Thus far, the tournament had proved a tough learning experience for the newly-minted U-17s, as they dropped their first two matches in distinctly difficult fashions.
Despite the first-half deficit, the American attack had begun to click. While the USA struggled to penetrate in front of the net, head coach John Hackworth could feel his team building momentum. He asked the players if they felt it too.
“They said ‘yeah.’ So, I told them we have to go after it,” Hackworth said. “It’s an opportunity. Let’s make the most of it. If you have a team like Brazil and you feel like you have the momentum, we have to go. It’s not the time to sit back and be conservative. We want to take the initiative, we want to be aggressive.”
The breakthrough finally came in the 53rd minute when Gilbert Fuentes’ corner kick found Axel Alejandre whose header from the top of the area was poked home from close range by substitute Diego Lopez. The USA found several stellar opportunities down the stretch, but couldn’t convert a game-winner.
“I thought on the night, we were the better team,” Hackworth said. “We probably deserved even better than a draw. I think we finished on a strong note. It was a really good performance from our team.”
An encouraging first half carried into a positive result for the USA in the finale, with Hackworth’s side the only team to take points off tournament champions Brazil . Now, the encouraging result can provide momentum for the program as it moves forward. The U-17s showed some flashes of serious potential at the Friendlies, but the tournament represents just the beginning for this age group. There’s a long road ahead as the team works towards qualifying for the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup.
“I like the way we play. We could do big things in the future,” Lopez said. “This week has been difficult but we just have to keep growing as a team. Hopefully we get the results we want in the future.”
The Nike Friendlies kick-started the new U-17 cycle. The tournament gave head coach John Hackworth his first opportunity to work with the group, but the team assembled just a few days before its first game against England on Nov. 29.
In the tournament opener, the USA was a minute away from drawing the Three Lions. As the teams traded runs, goalkeeper Damien Las made some highlight-reel saves to keep things deadlocked. Despite his seven stops, the English broke through in the 79th minute, scoring on a perfectly-placed header from a corner kick.
Hackworth started nine different players against the Netherlands in the U-17s’ second match. The Dutch overwhelmed the fresh XI and defeated the USA 5-1.
“This three-match tournament has shown us both ends of the spectrum. We know so much more about these young men than we did coming in,” Hackworth said. “To leave on a very positive note, a positive performance, is really important. This group that played tonight, I think there’s some good quality in there.”
Next up for the U-17s: a January domestic camp that will bring in more than 30 players. Hackworth’s Nike Friendlies roster included just 20 born in 2002, but the concurrent Development Academy Winter Showcase brought together hundreds of the nation’s top youth players, all hungry for opportunities with the Youth National Teams.
“We need to increase the depth of this pool, there’s no question,” Hackworth said. “When we were scouting around the Academy games, all the scouts and our whole staff were pleased that there are players out there that we’d like to bring into camp.”
The Youth National Team program put together a banner year in 2017. Both the U-17 and U-20 MNT made runs to the quarterfinals of their respective World Cups, and other age groups also earned positive results around the globe. There’s plenty of hard work ahead for the U-17s, but they have the potential to continue the YNT’s success in the new year.
“There’s lots of room for improvement,” Hackworth said. “We could play faster in the first half, we could move the ball a little quicker. There’s a lot of little details that this group, with time, is going to get much better at. That’s what we’re set out to do.”