Twenty years ago, the U.S. U-17 Men’s National Team went on a barnstorming run to the semifinals of the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship in New Zealand, still the best finish by a U.S. Men’s Youth National Team at a world championship.
Along with success on the field, the squad exhibited the success of an experiment by U.S. Soccer, which had opened a U-17 Residency Program the year before in Bradenton, Fla. Twenty-four players gathered at what is now known as IMG Academy, and through their successes on the field and close-quarters off of it, formed a brotherhood that lasts to this day.
In recognition of the team’s 20-year World Cup anniversary, nearly the entire squad and support staff gathered around the U.S. Men’s National Team’s recent 4-1 win against Canada in the Concacaf Nations League in Orlando.
ussoccer.com sat down with three members of the team: “Co-Captain” Nelson Akwari, “Mr. Humility” Jordan Cila, and “The Superstar” DaMarcus Beasley – who was honored by U.S. Soccer prior to the match – to gather an oral history of that semifinal run and discuss what made that team so special.
What are you guys doing here?
Nelson Akwari: “We’re here for the 20-year reunion of the 1997 U.S. U-17 Men’s National Team, and fortunately we got the opportunity to be here for the celebration of DaMarcus Beasley’s National Team and professional career. We’ve been spending some time reminiscing a little bit, telling jokes and stories about the good old days.”
Jordan Cila: “Beas didn’t tell us we’d be celebrating him. We were in our group chat, and we were like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to come to Orlando for our reunion.’ Then a day before we all realized we were just going to be celebrating DaMarcus, just like 20 years ago.”
DaMarcus Beasley: “And I have no comment on that…”
Tell us the origin story of the 1999 U-17 Men’s National Team. What makes you guys so special and why have you stayed so close during the last 20 years?
“I think as we traveled to Europe, to South America, Central America, we felt like we were a special group in the sense that we had been chosen to represent our country. We put that goal above the individual priorities of the team and we had a great group of guys.”
Akwari: “It was after the 1998 World Cup, and we were told that U.S. Soccer wanted to do a 2010 campaign, and were going to target an age group – which ended up being our ’82 age group – to potentially be one that can represent the National Team and hopefully win a World Cup one day. We thought it was pretty crazy, but we wanted to be a part of what U.S. Soccer was doing. We all went down to Florida with our families to check it out, and we were presented with an opportunity to live together with around 20 other guys, go to school and play soccer together.
Cila: “For most of us, we still talk about those first times when we played against each other, when we were selected for the first Residency group. It was amazing when we came together. I had never seen a defender like Nelson, or seen someone play like Beas, and I know they felt like they’d never seen someone with my incredible ability up top either. It was just really amazing at that point - growing up in New York, I was almost like ‘Wow, I must be in a bubble because these guys don’t exist there.’”
“I think we noticed early on that it was a perfect storm of personalities, talent and team chemistry. When we realized that, we saw that there was something special, and then you add in going to school together. When you’re with 20 of your best friends in a class, it’s hard to focus on anything, but it was a really amazing experience.”
Beyond living and playing soccer together, what was the living situation like?
Beasley: “It wasn’t fancy like it is now. We lived in dorms basically. It was four or five guys to a suite. Two guys shared rooms and it was bunk-bed style. We were in one apartment building in our little corner of Bollettieri Academy, which is what it was called back then. It was literally like a family. You wake up, you do the regular things you do as a human being, but you’re doing it all together. There were no parents, no one telling us what time to get up. We were just young men at 15 and 16 years old, going to school, living, breathing, eating, playing – everything together.
“I think as far as the conditions, it wasn’t great like it is now at IMG Academy, but we didn’t care. We liked the thought of U.S. Soccer’s idea to push for a World Cup, and that it was going to start with us. We just went and played. We didn’t care where we lived.”
Akwari: “DaMarcus was a midfielder, I was a defender. Beas and I were roommates. We would challenge each other in practice, and then we’d come back to our room afterwards, we wouldn’t talk to each other. For half an hour to an hour, we couldn’t look each other in the eye, because we were so competitive.
Beasley “There were fights, there was bickering. Some things that happened on the field led to off-field incidents in the dorms. We got into our fights.”
Akwari: “But eventually we’d brush it off and we were good to go.”
Beasley: “At the end of the day, we knew we were brothers. We were working towards something more important than not liking a certain person.”
Did you have much of a social life?
Cila: “We really didn’t have a social life there. We had each other. We weren’t allowed to go out off campus. There was a Sunday afternoon Wal-Mart trip where they used to provide a school bus which was the thrill. We were just looking forward to that. Having that environment where our social lives were just each other – this was before cell phones – we were really just intertwined together, and anything we were doing was together.
Akwari: “We had our dormitories and a gym that was covered. We recognized really quickly that if we were going to do anything outside of hanging out and watching TV, we’d just go to the gym and kick a soccer ball around. We were hitting balls at each other, juggling, people would go work out, go run. That was the only thing we had to do – hangout, workout, play soccer and play cards.”
Cila: “I remember needing a haircut really badly, and I didn’t know where to go. Gooch was like, ‘Come over and I’ll cut your hair.’ I just let him do it. I guess I trusted him, and it turned out okay.”
Having formed those bonds after a year of Residency and multiple trips abroad, it was time for the U.S. team to qualify for the World Cup, but…
Akwari: “The World Cup almost never happened for us. We basically had to fight to get into the playoff just to go. We were in Jamaica for qualifying, and we tied our first game against Costa Rica, 2-2. The second game, we beat Honduras 3-0 with a goal from DaMarcus and two from Landon, but the third game, we’re playing the hosts Jamaica…
Playing in Montego Bay, the Reggae Boyz needed just a draw, while the USA needed a win to directly qualify. A gritty game saw the hosts grind out a scoreless tie, sending Jamaica directly to the World Cup, and forcing the USA to a home-and-away playoff with El Salvador.
And to make matters worse…
Akwari: “Landon [Donovan] got a red card against Jamaica, so for the first leg in El Salvador, he was suspended and couldn’t play. At the time, Landon was scoring a lot of the goals, but we felt confident in our team and ability. As 16 and 17-year-olds, John Ellinger told us that when we got off the bus, you’re going to have fans that are going to want to take your head off, they’re going to be yelling and screaming at you, there are going to be security guards with machine guns…
“We get to the stadium and the fans are raucous. We’re not going to change – we already had our gear on. We were just going to have a quick meeting and get out on the field. We’re in the locker room and the whole place is shaking. It was just an incredible environment. Then about 25 minutes into the game, there’s an own goal and it comes off my foot and they’re up 1-0. We look at each other after the goal and say, ‘There’s no chance we’re going home and not qualifying.’
Needing to come back from a deficit when a raucous away crowd is against you can be one part of the equation to qualifying in the Concacaf region, but the young U.S. team – specifically DaMarcus Beasley -- experienced the full scope minutes later…
Beasley: “I had a dead chicken head land on my foot as I was about to take a corner kick! I’ll never forget it. Nobody else wanted to take corners after that… It was, ‘Beas, you keep taking corners.”
Cila: “In preparations for the game, we’d watch videos of past qualifiers where the fans would throw bags of urine at the opposing players on the field. To get us prepared, we were practicing, and the coaching staff would throw water balloons at us during practice. What I realized was psychologically, getting water balloons thrown at you is not preparation for getting urine bags or other things thrown at you. None of us wanted to take corner kicks, so in that game, we were all like, ‘Beas you take the corner kicks!’ It would just be an opportunity for fans to pelt bags of urine and batteries at us.”
Beasley: “I was making signs to run a play, it hit my foot and I immediately jumped. I looked down and it was a dead chicken head right by my foot. I took the corner kick, and I don’t think anything came from it, but that’s a true story. One-hundred percent.”
Cila: “I remember the jump! I remember it like it was yesterday, and then you scored on a header Nelson…”
Akwari: “I scored on a header after the first couple goals from Jordan…”
Cila: “I don’t really remember…”
Akwari: “He’s so humble… I scored after Jordan Cila put the ball in the back of the net a couple times…”
Cila: “You know what, it rings a bell now that you mention it…”
Akwari: “Things kept rolling and rolling from there. We went on to win 6-1.”
Beasley: “Jordan had a hat trick… we’ll say it for you.”
Cila: “Oh thanks man…”
FOR THE RECORD: With the U.S. team missing Landon Donovan, Jordan Cila guided the way with a hat trick, scoring in the 42nd, 63rd and 84th minutes. Nelson Akwari also added a goal in the 77th.
Cila: “There were a couple assists there too… It was one of those games, people often compare it to Michael Jordan’s first triple-double.”
Akwari: “It was incredible. We knew at that point we had done enough to qualify, and we were going back to Columbus for the second leg on home soil.”
The USA returned to play its home leg at brand-new Columbus Crew Stadium just about a month after it opened. Oguchi Onyewu recorded a brace, while Beasley and Donovan scored as well to push the team to a 4-0 victory and clinch qualification to the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship.
Beasley: “That was when the stadium in Columbus was basically brand new. We were happy to play in a big, MLS stadium. We were hyped to play in a really good environment, not like a college or some kind of football stadium. We were playing at the first, real soccer stadium in MLS. For me, I was so excited to get there.”
And it wasn’t the first time Beasley, Donovan, Onyewu and Convey would qualify for a World Cup in Columbus….
Akwari: “After that I lived in Columbus for a couple years and played for the Crew, but my wife is from Columbus as well. Fast forward to 2005 in the future, and I’m in the stands watching these guys playing against Mexico – Beas scoring that goal and winning 2-0 in the same stadium we played in when we were 17 years old. It’s crazy how that soccer story can continue.”
Leading up to the World Cup, and in lieu of not always being able to schedule international matches, the U-17 MNT often played professional reserve teams and college teams in preparation for the quickness and physicality they would face in New Zealand.
Cila: “I remember leading up to it we couldn’t play against kids our own age…we needed competition. We were doing scrimmages against MLS teams, and one day Coach Ellinger had to call us over – a couple of us, not all of us – and say, ‘Listen, a couple of players on the other team came up to me and asked why your guys are talking trash during the game? They’re 16 years old and we’re professionals.’
In hindsight that was kind of dumb, but we just had this mentality that we were together, we were going to take on anybody – not Nelson, he would bring us back down to earth.
Beasley: “We were 15 and 16-year-old kids…”
Cila: “We could have been humbler…”
Beasley: “It’s hard because back then we were beating some of those teams, obviously it wasn’t their first teams, but they were professionals and we were beating them. You get what Jordan is talking about, that we had to calm ourselves down. We were punks. That’s what 16-year-olds are.
“We knew we were good, and we had this swagger about us that whoever we played – if we played professionals, colleges teams, teams our own age – we were going to play, and we were going to talk a little trash while doing it. We could back it up, because we were a good group. It was good to have Nellie and our coaches to bring that humility, and to remind us we hadn’t accomplished anything yet, focus on the game, and treat it with respect. It’s hard telling a 16-year-old kid that when you’re beating grown men.”
After gaining confidence, the U.S. headed to New Zealand in late October for its final World Cup preparations, carrying with them to Auckland a 20-match international unbeaten streak (16-0-4) that dated back 14 months.
Cila: “It’s weird when you spend years together as a group and it’s all meant for this couple week period and the results of that are so important. We were on this incredible unbeaten streak internationally and knew we had the ability and talent, but if you don’t perform in these few games, it almost feels like it’s for nothing.”
Akwari: “Credit to U.S. Soccer. They took us to New Zealand for a pre-tournament a month before. We had gone there for a couple weeks and we were comfortable with the food, the people and the culture.”
That comfort level would be important as the team was faced with the tough task of facing hosts New Zealand in the opening game…
Akwari: “Getting picked to play against the home country was extremely difficult as well. We recognized early on that despite the fact we felt confident and comfortable, playing against the host country was going to be a battle.”
After conceding early, Abe Thompson and Landon Donovan provided second half goals to see the USA to a 2-1 victory. Late goals or comebacks would be a recurring theme throughout the group stage.
In the next match against Poland, Donovan won an 88th minute spot kick and converted a minute later to salvage a 1-1 draw.
In the group finale against Uruguay, Beasley’s 90th minute corner kick found Oguchi Onyewu, who headed home the winner to help the USA finish atop the group.
Cila: “We felt the pressure, but like so many times before we had a lot of confidence in our ability and our team. Watching other teams, we had a sense that we were actually better than a lot of them. We got experience beating a lot of big teams previously, and we just went in with a lot of confidence.
I don’t think we were surprised in any way that we had a lot of success. If anything, we felt like we had a real chance to win it.”
The finish set-up a quarterfinal date with regional rivals Mexico, and while the USA once again spotted their opponents an early third minute goal, the team took the lead before halftime thanks to goals from Beasley and Cila. Kyle Beckerman provided the insurance goal on the other side of the break to give the USA a 3-2 victory.
Akwari: “In a World Championship, you have those moments in a game where players step up. Obviously, Landon won the Golden Ball and Beas won the Silver Ball, and they stepped up many times. We also had great contributions from Jordan sitting here, Abe Thompson, Kyle Beckerman and many others. In a tournament like that, you need a number of guys to step up, and we had that in 1999.”
Carrying a then 24-match unbeaten streak into the semifinals against Australia, the USA went down two goals before Donovan once again tallied and Onyewu equalized in the second half.
Akwari: “I was not surprised to see guys step up in really difficult moments. I think we all recognized that we had to play to the best of our ability in the specific tournament and the entire two years we had spent – the trips, the laughs, the jokes, everything we had done and the investment that was put into us was for this specific tournament. “
But despite carrying momentum into extra time, the USA couldn’t find a third goal and ultimately lost 7-6 in sudde- death penalty kicks.
Akwari: “To lose in PKs against Australia after we were down 2-0 and came back to send it to overtime – we felt confident that we could beat them in the overtime period – it was crushing.”
Specifically, the USA lost the shootout when captain Kenny Cutler put his attempt over the bar in the eighth round of penalty kicks. Upon missing the penalty, the diminutive midfielder fell to the turf and beat the ground in despondency at what had just occurred.
His teammates were there to lift him up, and still with the Third Place Game to play against Ghana, made a gesture to show their enduring bond of brotherhood.
“What our teammate meant to us was more important than another game. That practice was terrible, we were all crying again, but I think for us in those moments it was about us being brothers and men over the game itself. I think that’s why 20 years later you see us laughing and joking around, still sticking with it.”
Akwari: “Throughout the cycle, Kenny and I were co-captains of the team. As a team, we talked about the fact that I was supposed to wear the captain’s armband for the Third Place Game against Ghana, because we rotated it between the two of us. When we talked about it, we said, ‘Kenny missed that last PK, but basically we all missed that PK.’ We were all together and we said, ‘Kenny, we want you to wear that captain’s armband. We want you to walk us out on the field.’
Beasley: “In that end, stories like that and the whole experience is what makes us brothers. That’s what makes us, us. We were living together for more than a year. Day in, day out, training, eating, going to school, 24/7. At the end of the day, that’s why we’re so tight.
“The relationships we have 20 years later, that’s why we can still tell these stories and laugh about them. You see it with this weekend when we come together. That’s what makes our group so special.”