U.S. U-20s: Post-tourney wrap

July, 15, 2007
With the U.S. U-20 team crashing out of the World Cup after its quarterfinal loss to Austria, the U.S. lost its best chance in recent memory to reach the finals of a major international tournament.

As a whole, though, the tournament was undoubtedly a positive, winning a strong group and seeing several U-20 players show real class and the potential ability to contribute to the senior team in the near future. On the downside, losing to Austria, a team that on paper was inferior, and seeing projected semifinal opponent Spain (which would have been a strong favorite) surprisingly knocked out by the Czechs, meant that the rather meek manner in which the U.S. lost to Austria can only leave a bitter aftertaste for the squad.

That said, here's what can be gleaned from the tourney:

1. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: That the U.S. played so poorly against Austria doesn't come as a complete surprise, especially considering its performances against South Korea and Uruguay. Those three games sandwiched around one sensational performance against Poland and one very good one against Brazil highlighted the extreme up-and-down nature of this team. Part of the problem, of course, is the youth factor. At this age group, the consistency isn't necessarily there from game to game. The other aspect might be the fact that the U.S. team wasn't very deep (offering little off the bench) and depended too much on strong performances from certain individuals on offense to overshadow major deficiencies on defense and an inability to keep possession of the ball in general.

2. Freddy Adu: With the U.S. not reaching at least the semifinal, Adu's candidacy for the Golden Ball award is probably finished. However, there's no doubt that Adu raised his stock again significantly in this tournament, especially considering the tempered expectations most observers (outside of the most rabid Adu fans out there) had for him based on his performances in MLS the past two years. There's no doubt Adu prospered in this tournament, showing true flashes of world-class brilliance (the hat trick against Poland, and the sick move on the sideline to beat two defenders against Brazil) and a level of creativity that is uncommon for a U.S. player. On the flip side, he still has too many holes in his game -- a tendency to disappear, gets knocked off the ball too easily and at times questionable decision-making with the ball -- to say for sure that he'll develop into the world-class player that the U.S. hopes he can become. Even so, what's left is that he will once again be drawing strong interest from European teams upon his return to MLS, although it's highly unlikely that those same suitors will be willing to splurge huge sums on him along the lines of Man United's $50 million-plus signing of youngsters Anderson and Nani earlier this summer. I'd imagine at this point, teams will bid in the $5-8 million range for Adu, which will leave MLS with a huge dilemma. Cash in now while his stock is relatively high again or hold on to him and risk seeing his value decline again?

3. Josmer Altidore: He's not 18 yet, but once he turns 18, expect a host of European clubs to come hard after Altidore. Given his youth, finishing ability and impressive physical tools, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of European teams rated Altidore as a better pro prospect than Adu. Altidore's stock rose even more in Canada with some observers pegging him as the best pure center forward prospect in the entire tournament.

4. Future national team contributors: Aside from the obvious candidacy of Adu, Altidore and Michael Bradley (who already has a firm foothold in the senior setup and looked the mirror image of an Owen Hargreaves-style workhorse in this tournament), there were several others that showed the potential to make the grade at the full international level. Goalkeeper Chris Seitz showed strong potential, provided he makes a few technical adjustments, and Sal Zizzo showed enough to suggest that he might be an option at right mid or winger, as well. On defense, Anthony Wallace and Nathan Sturgis were impressive enough to suggest that they could factor into the mix at the perennially weak left back spot for the U.S. down the line. In Sturgis' case, he played center back but I'd project him as a more effective left back on the pro level, whereas Wallace left most observers wondering how Tim Ward could have been the opening-game starter. As for Danny Szetela, I'm still on the bubble about him -- he strikes me as a boom-or-bust type. Certainly if he can maintain his goal-scoring prowess in the pros, he could make an impact. But for a defensive midfielder, he really doesn't add much defensive bite or energy to the midfield in that respect, and his passing accuracy and technique isn't ideal either.

5. Thomas Rongen: One would be hard-pressed to say that Rongen did an even adequate job coaching the U-20s in this tournament. Throughout the tourney he made questionable lineup decisions -- inexplicably starting Ward over Wallace to begin with, keeping faith with Julian Valentin at center back even though Ofori Sarkodie showed better when replacing an injured Valentin, starting less than fully fit players (Seitz and Zizzo) against Austria, and his strange substitution patterns -- which were compounded by the fact that Rongen never seemed to adjust his strategy or prepare his team adequately for the tactical adjustments that the U.S. would face in the elimination stage. It was clear after the group stage (and especially the game against Korea) that the U.S. back line and midfield would struggle when pressured on the ball (something Poland and Brazil neglected to do). Against both Uruguay and Austria, teams that employed a high-intensity pressure approach, the U.S. had extreme difficulty in keeping the ball and stringing together a coherent sequence of passes or even clearing their lines, which was ultimately what cost the Americans.

Jen Chang is the U.S. Soccer editor for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes regularly and is a contributer to Soccernet podcasts. He joined ESPN Studio Production in 2004 and earned a Sports Emmy award, before making the move to ESPN.com in 2005.


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