U-20 Defeat Has Little Bearing on Future of U.S. National Team

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U-20 Defeat Has Little Bearing on Future of U.S. National Team
Bob Levey/Getty Images

With a 2-1 loss to Guatemala's U-20 national team, the U.S. U-20s failed to qualify for their age group's World Cup.

Here's a look at the last 10 years' worth of winners and runners-up from the U-20 World Cup:

 

Egypt 2009

Winner: Ghana

Runner Up: Brazil

Canada 2007

Winner: Argentina

Runner Up: Czech Republic

Netherlands 2005

Winner: Argentina

Runner Up: Nigeria

UAE 2003

Winner: Brazil

Runner Up: Spain

Argentina 2001

Winner: Argentina

Runner Up: Ghana

Nigeria 1999

Winner: Spain

Julian Finney/Getty Images
Ghana is the last team to win the U-20 tournament. After their win over the U.S. and their competent play against England, they might be better than most U.S. fans realize.

Runner Up: Japan

 

If the winners or runners-up were used as any indication of how the future soccer powers of the world would look, then Argentina and Spain would be the favorites with Brazil as a close second (seems to be the nature of things), and Ghana should have won a World Cup for Africa by now (Why hasn't that happened?).

Perhaps the only bit of insight that can be gained from the U-20 tournament is Ghana's world-class status, but any fan that watched the England/Ghana friendly a week ago could have come to the same conclusion.

Ghana's good.

They're better than the media or fans ever gave them credit for, but if one would have looked at the club pedigree, at least 10 players are playing at European clubs, if not top-flight clubs. Add to that a strong coach with tactics that favored the team's strength, and there's no reason not to consider Ghana a dangerous side.

Still, that could have been discerned without a U-20 World Cup. These players were picked up at an early age by clubs that recognized their talent.

Then maybe the U-20 World Cup is the coming-out party for star players on the international scene. Javier Saviola, Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi have all won the Golden Ball and Golden Shoe.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Messi had his moment in the sun at the U-20 tournament

Domnic Adiyiah (of Ghana fame, but currently playing for Partizan in Serbia, on loan from AC Milan; also, originally picked up by Feyenoord at age 10, thereby already recognized as talented before the U-20 tournament) has won both as well, and Eddie Johnson has won the Golden Shoe.

Is the U-20 tournament a realistic glimpse into the careers of tomorrow's stars?

If not, then what can be learned from the U.S. not qualifying for the U-20 tournament? This question was brought to Grant Wahl in his soccer mailbag at si.com, but this isn't a new concern or question.

As far back as 1994, there were always rumors of the young teams fairing well in these tournaments and how these new teams (in particular African teams) were heralding a change in the international football landscape.

But what has actually changed in all that time?

As of 2010, there's one new addition to the World Cup winners...not from Africa...but from a European country with a Golden Generation, a premier league and a strong youth-focused infrastructure (that much can be gleaned from the U-20 records. The same holds for the youth of Argentina and Brazil).

Grant Wahl hinted at this in his response, wanting to focus more on the overall American landscape of youth development and how there are few young players ready to replace Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey.

Clive Mason/Getty Images
So did Eddie Johnson, but what happened to him?

Disregarding the absurd in his commentsDonovan and Dempsey are arguably in their prime and still improvingwho could usurp their place on the American side? Not to mention, American players tend to peak later than most as most lack the experience necessary to compete with the best on the international stage; it's not by accident that players, coaches and analysts all comment on the dramatic increase in speed at the top level, and therefore, it takes a little more time for American players to evolvethe U-20 tournament is really a showcase for FIFA in order to make money and advertise their product.

 

The aberrations in the final participants should be the first indication that the tournament is an unreliable predictor of future success.

Maturity, club soccer and the senior squad all skew the impact of these youth tournaments.

Yes, Lionel Messi played for his U-20 squad, but what about two England players that were hailed as stars in their youth: Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen? Rooney played one game for the U-19 squad and Owen, four, for the U-20's, yet both logged significant minutes for their senior side(70 and 89 starts respectively).

Notice, both Argentina and England have not won the World Cup in recent years with the former doing well at the U-20 tournament and the latter, not so much. Lionel Messi is arguably the best player in the world, and Wayne Rooney is not that far behind him, different routes, same outcome.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Rooney never did. Why is he so good?

Messi came along during a time when his national side was stacked with talent, especially up front (he would eventually make the senior team for the 2006 World Cup), but was over shadowed by Carlos Tevez, Hernan Crespo and Juan Roman Riquelme.

At 18, Messi wasn't at a point in his career to usurp such excellent players, so obviously, Messi would have more opportunities to shine at the youth tournament.

England, however, needed another goal-scorer as Michael Owen was injury prone and Emile Heskey has his difficulty finding the net from time to time; the opportunity was there for Rooney, not so much for Messi.

With so many variables, youth tournaments need to be taken with a grain of salt, especially for the United States.

The American side oftentimes overachieves, a sum total usually better than its individual partswhich may not always be said for Argentina, Brazil or England. 

Also, young American players tend to lack the experience and chemistry needed to add to such a team, and this may be why a number of U.S. managers return to their "comfortable" and "favored" players even after they've exceeded their use-by date.

Club play is difficult for most American players.

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The MLS season runs opposite the European and international calendar. Players must find a way to the more competitive European leagues, and this tends to take a little more time. The domestic league isn't as developed as the Brazilian and Argentinian leagues, so it takes Americans more time to succeed at the international level.

But that doesn't mean the U.S. national side doesn't win.

U.S. soccer needs to address what these youth players need and are learning at the tournaments and if this is the best choice for development. Many of these players end up competing in the MLS, but few are making the transition to the next level.

There's still no American superstar forward nor midfield playmaker.

There's a slew of role players, but many U.S. pool players can play a role without getting a tremendous amount of international playing time at the youth level. College soccer and the MLS are decent enough to develop this level of talent.

What does the U.S. need to do in order to facilitate a player's transition to high-level European soccer? Messi, Rooney and a host of other international players continue to develop. Why are Americans stalling?

Is it coaching? Maybe poor career choices? There may be as many variables as there are with the U-20 tournament, but clearly, something is wrong.

Winning the youth tournaments isn't important. The tournaments aren't a barometer of anything in particular, but the lack of high-profile transfer fee or club signing for an American is.

The focus needs to be on the inability for the U.S. to develop its potential stars after a certain point, not what was the score of that kindergarten friendly last week.

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