Photo by ISIphotos.com
The U.S. Under-17 national team won a World Cup game on Thursday, but for many American observers, the 1-0 victory against Malawi didn't quite feel like a triumph. The disappointing performance led to some criticism (from SBI among others), and while it might seem misguided to be critical of a team of teenagers, the fact remains that this U-17 squad isn't just some youth team. It is a team being used as a barometer to measure just how bright (or dim) the future of U.S. Soccer is.
Sounds a bit heavy, doesn't it? The fate of a national team program resting on the still developing shoulders of kids who haven't attended their proms yet? It isn't quite that serious, but this Under-17 team does carry the responsibility of showing American fans that progress is being made, that the resources being funneled into U.S. soccer's youth development program aren't being wasted.
The U.S. Under-17 residency program has helped produce some of U.S. Soccer's brightest stars, but two years after an Under-17 World Cup failure, this new installment doesn't look anything like the standout squad we were hearing for so long it would be.
Yes, we've come to that point in American soccer when a youth national team can carry the burden of expectations.
That is what happens with exposure and with more attention being paid to the sport and national team programs. Consider that there are probably more American soccer fans who have heard about Charlie Renken, Earl Edwards and Jack McInerney than have heard about a good number of MLS players. Why is this the case? It is the case because American soccer fans are always looking for the next star, the next player or players to believe in, the generation of standouts who will help the United States rise to the level of the elite. How else can you explain some U.S. national team fans already projecting Under-17 left back Tyler Polak as a future senior national team player based on a few good youth World Cup performances?
The success of American youth national teams isn't so much about results as it is about showing us that the United States' best young players are getting better and the pipeline is stocked as current stars like Landon Donovan and Tim Howard move toward the inevitable twilights of their careers. It is about a team wearing the USA shield playing some attractive soccer and giving us hope. We saw it in 2007 with the Under-20 national team (featuring the likes of Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley), and we saw it in 2003 with the Under-17 national team (featuring Freddy Adu, Eddie Gaven and Danny Szetela).
No, those youth team flashes of brilliance don't always translate into national team glory, but this country is hungry for evidence of progress. The current Under-17 World Cup team has the unlucky task of following up the Under-20 World Cup team's putrid performance, as well as the disappointment of the 2007 Under-17 team (which finished 1-3). The current team actually showed some good skill in its opening 2-1 loss to Spain, but missed chances and a blown lead vs. Spain, coupled with subsequent flat effort against Malawi (which the U.S. team won courtesy of an awful goalkeeping blunder by Malawi), suddenly have the U-17s heading into Sunday's group finale vs. the UAE needing its strongest performance of the tournament.
Perhaps this team is doomed to fall short of expectations. When standouts Charlie Renken, Joseph Gyau and Sebastian Lletget either pass on or were passed up for this team, any thoughts of real tournament glory should have disappeared. This team doesn't need a medal to be successful though. It needs to play some quality soccer, create chances, show more skill and less fear.
If this Under-17 team can show that it is better than it has shown in its first two matches, and win on Sunday, it could still wind up making this Under-17 World Cup a memorable one for USA fans, and make thoughts of the long-term future of American soccer just a bit more promising. If the U.S. team falls flat, then fans looking for signs of progress will be forced to wait even longer to see them.