U.S. soccer: 10 to watch under 21
Hope is the fuel that keeps many soccer fans coming back. No matter how dire a team's immediate prospects may be, youth players on the horizon can keep the flame of optimism alive.
Future of U.S. soccer
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• Top 10 under 21
• Coaches' roundtable
• Brazil Board 2014
• Sports Nation: Have your say
• 2012 U.S. resolutions
• Chat, 3 ET: Jeff Carlisle on U.S. soccer
• Report from U.S. camp
The future of the U.S. men's national team is far from bleak, but the impulse to look to the future is just as strong, especially as the Americans threaten to join the elite and break into the later stages of tournaments. Would one more special player have provided that extra nudge needed to make a massive breakthrough, and say, reach a World Cup semifinal? Without question. But while it's fun to dream, finding and developing those players remains a long, hard slog for the powers that be in this country.
That said, there are some players who -- if the soccer gods are kind enough to smile on them, and reward their dedication -- could end up having a significant impact on the U.S. team for years to come. Here are the top 10 players under the age of 21 whom fans should keep an eye on.
1. Juan Agudelo, forward, New York Red Bulls
It hardly seems possible that just 14 months ago, Agudelo burst on the scene, scoring a late winner in his international debut against South Africa and becoming the youngest U.S. player to score in a senior match. He followed that up four months later with an equalizer in a friendly against Argentina.
Expectations inevitably rose, and while much of the coverage of Agudelo was circumspect, that didn't stop the Colombian-born striker from hitting some potholes. His playing time with the Red Bulls decreased, and New York manager Hans Backe even resorted to using Agudelo in a wide midfield role; that is, when he played him at all. The biggest criticism was that Agudelo lost concentration too easily and couldn't stay tuned in for 90 minutes. More questions were asked when the Red Bulls acquired Kenny Cooper in a draft-day trade on January 12, hinting that Agudelo could be on his way out of New York.
Such struggles have forced Agudelo to take a crash course in navigating the inevitable roller-coaster ride that can characterize a player's career. Of his successes, he said, "All you can do is not think about all of those things that have happened, and just think about the present and what I can do to get better. I'm just trying to always improve and get better, so I just think about those things and let the past go."
His take on the downtimes sounds much the same.
"[The benching] made me have to work for everything, and pushed me to be a better player, and work harder," he said. "Nothing was given to me on a silver platter."
None of this is a surprise to U.S. national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who given his World Cup-winning playing pedigree, knows a thing or two about overcoming obstacles. The key is how Agudelo reacts to such difficulties, and Klinsmann has made it clear he intends to do everything he can to shepherd his protégé through what should prove to be a busy 2012.
Juan has to learn how to manage negative moments, angry moments. But the talent he has is special.” -- U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann on Agudelo
"Don't expect miracles. It's a path that [Agudelo] has to go through the next couple of years," Klinsmann said. "That takes patience, it takes a lot of willingness on their end; the right attitude and hunger. Juan is going through a lot of ups and downs. That's what he has to go through. He has to live these moments and he has to learn how to manage negative moments, angry moments. But the talent he has is special."
The hope is that the steeling of Agudelo will pay off for both the full team and the Olympic team in the form of goals. There is no doubt that the Red Bull forward possesses the size and strength to be an international-class striker, and his game has revealed something else: an ability to create his own shot and improvise, which is rare. If he can refine the less glamorous aspects of his game, he'll become the striker that everyone connected to club and country envisions.
Such a development is critical if the U.S. is to become one of the elite soccer nations in the world. The last time a U.S. striker scored in the World Cup was back in 2002 when Brian McBride scored against Mexico. Agudelo could very well be the one to break that streak, but there's a ways to go.
"My goal is just to get minutes on both [club and national] teams, because minutes mean experience," Agudelo said. "I feel like if I get minutes at such a young age, it gives me a head start for my understanding of the game and my confidence on the field."
2. Josh Gatt, midfielder/forward, Molde FK
The U.S. soccer landscape is littered with players who made the jump to Europe only to sink into obscurity. So far, Gatt has not only managed to avoid those pitfalls, his performances suggests a very promising future. Possessed of blazing speed and acceleration, the Michigan native bypassed college and MLS, spending a year with Austrian side SC Rheindorf Altach before moving to Norway, where he helped Molde win Norway's Tippeligaen for the first time in its 100-year history.
During the just-concluded season, Gatt spent the majority of his time at right back, but also saw minutes at right wing and right midfield in manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's 4-3-3. While his pace allowed him to easily get forward, his future with the U.S. would appear to lie closer to goal.
"Not only does he have the athleticism, but he has the technical and tactical ability to be a top player," said former U.S. U-20 head coach Thomas Rongen.
A hamstring injury cut short his club season last fall, depriving him of a call-up to the full national team, but with exposure via the U.S. Olympic squad as well in the UEFA Champions League on the horizon, Gatt could yet make his mark with Klinsmann's side.
3. Joe Gyau, midfielder/forward, Hoffenheim
Gyau has long been one of the jewels of the U.S. system. He's another attacking player with electric pace, although in his case, he's also blessed with incredible close control. The trick now for the 19-year-old is harnessing that ability and using it at the right moments, determining when to take players on and when to pass.
Fortunately for Gyau, his stint with the reserve team of Bundesliga club TSG 1899 Hoffenheim has infused his game with more discipline. He was just an occasional starter with the reserves during the first half of the season, making 14 appearances (including five starts), but the winter break has seen him progress to the point where he could begin to challenge for some minutes with the first team when the season resumes.
"In recent years, he's gained more confidence and uses his pace a little more get behind people and just cause disruption," said FC Dallas and former U.S. U-17 head coach John Ellinger.
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4. Terrence Boyd, forward, Borussia Dortmund
No player's stock has risen more in the past 12 months than that of Boyd, who is playing for Borussia Dortmund's reserve side under the tutelage of former U.S. international David Wagner. Born to a German mother and U.S. serviceman father, Boyd's eligibility to play for the U.S. was dug up by Rongen. Boyd is a classic target forward, with size, power and a finishing touch that has seen him net 10 times in 15 matches this season.
"Boyd can score in various ways," said Rongen. "He can use his speed, or he can hold up the ball and bring other guys into play. In the box, he has good qualities."
Others around U.S. soccer hint that Boyd's progression has been such that he may be poised to surpass Agudelo in the near future. Either way, look for Boyd to play in this summer's Olympics if the U.S. can qualify.
5. Sebastian Lletget, midfielder, West Ham United
Given his Italian citizenship, there was a time when Lletget seemed poised to follow Giuseppe Rossi right out of the U.S. player pool. But these days, Lletget is firmly dedicated to the American cause and is one of the leading contenders to make the Olympic team.
Good thing, because Lletget is the kind of creative player that the U.S. system has struggled to produce. He joined West Ham United's youth academy as a 16-year-old, and has progressed to the point that he is now part of the club's developmental team.
"He's a guy who needs to play underneath the forward, be an assist guy, and score goals," said Rongen. "He has the silkiest touch, and is one of the most technical guys in that position."
6. Zarek Valentin, defender, Montreal Impact
Valentin's biggest asset is his versatility, and not in a Derek Zoolander kind of way. He spent much of his rookie season with Chivas USA at right back, and when he was exposed in the expansion draft, Montreal snapped him up. But he played center back in college and could feature there again for the Olympic team, where his composure on the ball will come in handy.
"His positioning is very good and he works well with the other backs on the line," said Ellinger. "He's a good one-on-one defender, and he plays that long diagonal ball that a lot of teams like to use these days."
7. Perry Kitchen, defender/midfielder, D.C. United
Kitchen is another player who played out of position at right back during his rookie season. In his case, though, his future appears to lie as a defensive midfielder, and at present he looks like he's going to be given every chance this season to win that position with D.C. United. That said, he drew solid reviews for his play at the back -- with his composure and ability to win balls in the air among his best attributes -- and his leadership skills have been widely praised as well.
"Kitchen has a presence about him, a real, 'This is my territory and you're going to have to deal with me' kind of attitude," said Ellinger. "Playing out wide, that wasn't an easy transition, but he did it well."
8. Amobi Okugo, M, Philadelphia Union
Club success has been somewhat slower to come for Okugo than Kitchen, but the UCLA product is another player with a big upside, and he saw his playing time increase in 2011, garnering 15 appearances for the Union (10 starts). While his ability to play out of tight spots could be improved, he is plenty adept at breaking up plays and he covers plenty of ground.
"Okugo is very competitive, very driven, and a lot better than people give him credit for tactically," said Union assistant John Hackworth. "He finds really good spots, and he's going to make it because he comes to work every single day, humble as can be, willing to go after it, and never thinking that he's arrived."
9. Kelyn Rowe, midfielder, New England Revolution
At first glance, a player who at times didn't start for his college team in 2011 seems an unlikely candidate for this list. But Rowe's superior skill on the ball is clear, as evidenced by the goal he scored for UCLA against North Carolina in the semifinals of last year's NCAA College Cup. On that occasion he worked a quick combination with Chandler Hoffman and, with the deftest of touches, slotted the ball home with the outside of his right foot. That play was by no means a one-off either.
"Rowe is a very good player, very skilled," said U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos. "I think going into the next level there'll be a little adjustment in playing a lot faster but I think he'll be a successful player in MLS. People will say he's not big enough or strong enough, but those things won't matter if he plays and thinks quick enough. If he isn't physically fast, I don't think it will matter if he's thinking fast."
10. Gale Agbossoumonde, defender, Eintracht Frankfurt
There's no question that "Boss" has the talent. At 6-foot-2, Agbossoumonde has all the physical tools. His skill on the ball is considerable as well.
"Agbossoumonde has a soft touch for a defender," said Hackworth. "And he's good about playing out of back. He can be very sharp with his passing."
The only question is whether his skills will become dulled by lack of use. After seemingly going on an endless tour of Europe in search of a club, Agbossoumonde finally landed with the reserve team of Bundesliga second-division side Eintracht Frankfurt. But even at that level, playing time has been hard to come by, with the defender securing just one five-minute stint so far this season. As a consequence, Agbossoumonde could end up back stateside, with published reports hinting at a move to the second-tier Carolina RailHawks. The defender already has one cap for the national team, but he'll need to establish himself with a club -- any club -- for his rise to continue.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.