Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By DAN KARELL
The Under-17 U.S. Men’s National Team embarked on their third cross-Atlantic trip of 2014 on Thursday, carrying a level of confidence not often seen from a U.S. youth team.
In their last two European trips, the U.S. U-17s returned home champions, winning both the Aegean Cup in Turkey and the Josip Katalinski Tournament in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The wins against European powers including Turkey, France, and a pair of victories over Croatia in international friendly matches, only boosted the confidence that this squad is playing with since defeating Brazil to win the 2013 Nike Friendlies.
U.S. head coach Richie Williams and an 18-man squad are heading to play in the 2014 Nordic Tournament, where they will face Denmark, Norway, and the Faroe Islands in the group stage on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, before Williams heads off to Mexico to coach an 18-man squad in the Copa Mexico de Naciones beginning Aug. 2.
Though player development and evaluation is incredibly important, Williams’ and the team’s goal remains the same: to win.
“When you look at the results that we’ve had….we feel like we can compete with the best teams in the world and we can go and win the tournament,” Williams said in a phone interview. “That’s going to be our goal. We want to be confident but we don’t want to be over confident and cocky. We want to go out there and show the rest of the world that we’re talented and we’re a good team.”
In early July, Williams and the U-17 coaching staff hosted a week-long camp at the National Training Center in Carson, Calif. to evaluate players as well as select two squads for the two tournaments, which slightly overlap. During the camp, Williams was able to take a hard look at many of his residency players as well as some players based internationally, and wound up selecting 34 players from across the nation for the two tournaments.
Four players, goalkeeper Will Pulisic, defender Edwin Lara, and forwards McKenzie Gaines and Elijah Rice will take part in both tournaments, as Williams wanted to give them more games to play.
“We knew we had an opportunity with two tournaments that overlap so we couldn’t take the same group, so we figured that it was a good way to give an opportunity to some players that performed well, especially in residency, but hasn’t had the opportunity to get international games,” Williams said. “It’s been a pretty strong group, and its been hard for some guys to break in, especially with the success the team has had.”
The squad selected for the Copa Mexico de Naciones looks to be the strongest side, with many players playing key roles for the U-17s over the past 12 months in tournaments at home and abroad. The team features stud forwards Joe Gallardo and Haji Wright, midfielders Luca de la Torre and Christian Pulisic, powerful defenders, Alexis Valela, Hugo Arellano, and Danny Barbir, and goalkeeper Will Pulisic.
While the squad heading for Denmark may lack some of the star power or name appeal, there are a number of players that Williams is excited to have a look at, including dual national Kai Koreniuk.
The 16-year-old forward is a native of Ormond Beach, Fla. but thanks to his Dutch mother and a scout from the Netherlands, Koreniuk was able to secure a trial with Vitesse Arnhem’s academy before being accepted last winter. According to a report in the Orlando Sentinel, Koreniuk was invited to train with Holland’s U-16 after some strong performances with the Vitesse U-16 squad.
Koreniuk’s call up to the U.S. U-17s was his first official call-up with U.S. Soccer at any level, and despite struggling with an injury, Williams likes what he sees.
“He’s at times looked promising but the injury has held him back and the injuries he’s had also hurt his fitness,” Williams said. “The two things that we addressed at the end of the camp were that we feel he has some talent and we feel that he’s a guy that can help us but we need to get him really healthy and we need to get him fit.
“With the talent that he has and the ability to score goals, he can help our team and that’s what we are hoping for.”
Dates for CONCACAF’s qualifying tournament for the 2015 Under-17 World Cup have not yet been officially announced, but based on previous tournaments, it’s likely to be held in March or April. This means that time is running out for Williams and his staff to find his best squad for the U.S. to qualify for the U-17 World Cup, a task they failed to achieve in 2013.
For Williams, that’s what these tournaments against international opponents are all about. Testing his players against some of the best in the world in their age group, and seeing how his players respond to adversity.
“Any time that we have the opportunity to get international games, to travel to Europe, to travel to Mexico and play the best teams in the world, we’re going to take those opportunities, that’s our goal,” Williams explained. “Its just another way for our team to get better, to play against international competition. It ends up working out really well with these two tournaments that we’re going to be able to see a large group of players and they’ll have opportunities to show us, moving into qualifying, who we can count on for our 20-man roster to qualify us for the World Cup.
“I’m looking forward to the next three weeks and really seeing the team improving, the players improving, getting good results and at the same time developing, and then learning more about the players in terms of who we’re going to bring come (qualifying).”