Rongen's Dismissal Shouldn't Be End of Relationship with USNT Youth Development
Last week, U.S. Soccer announced it would not be renewing Thomas Rongen's contract as the men's U-20 national team coach.
Naturally, this wasn't Rongen's wish, and he told ESPN.com that he had stated his case for the continuance of his position as manager of the U-20's. He cited stability and recruiting success as major reasons for contract renewal.
Rongen hinted that the USSF weighed a strong winning record over recruiting prowess, and with his team's failure to qualify for the U-20 World Cup, there was little chance he would receive a new contract.
Success with any U-20 national team is difficult, and it is impressive that he managed to keep that position for nine years (with a small stint at Chivas USA).
Most likely, Rongen kept his position because he discovered a number of young players with outstanding potential—players like Clint Dempsey and Stuart Holden.
In fact, his latest group was labeled as his most talented to date.
But his ability to recruit such players was his downfall. With more skill in his side came greater expectations, and finally, he couldn't live up to the hype.
There were flaws to Rongen's philosophy, and perhaps that's the best defense the USSF can claim for Rongen's dismissal.
Rongen searched far and wide for his players, and while he expanded the breadth and talent of the U.S. player pool, his desire to assess as many players as possible left his core group with little time to practice together.
Once one considers the importance of instilling a national philosophy, especially in the U-20's since they will become the newest members of the senior side, Rongen's managerial shortcomings become dangerous holes in a national program.
It was more likely the lack of an overall improved, attractive youth system that ended Rongen's reign rather than the results of one game (Rongen alluded to results, in particular the Guatemala game, as the major factor in the federation's decision).
Also, the federation's recent release of its top-level youth development guidelines spearheaded by Claudio Reyna may have also played into the decision. The federation may be looking for a manager with a more intensive, consistent, rather than expansive, approach in order to support this program.
That doesn't mean Rongen should be left out in the cold.
There's something to be said for a broad, sophisticated, inviting and philosophically-focused development program. Germany's run at the World Cup proves the importance of such a nationally organized program.
And the United States desperately needs that system.
Outside of his coaching foibles, the biggest criticism against him is Neven Subotic.
Now a Serbian international, Subotic had the opportunity to play for the United States but opted for the Eastern European country because of a strained relationship with the U.S. youth teams and coaches—Rongen included.
The problem revolved around publicly stated remarks from Rongen about Subotic's performance for the U-20 team, but again, this issue has more to do with a coaching than recruiting, and shouldn't be an issue if Rongen ends up holding a different position.
Some real good could come out of this shakeup. The U-20 team needs a coach that gets more out of its team, tactically and technically, but even more so, the youth levels need a more inclusive, unified plan.
Yes, some players develop a little later than others, but senior manager Bob Bradley has been in the recent practice of calling up first-time foreign based players with dual citizenship for international friendlies, and this shouldn't have to happen.
Should Rongen have been dismissed?
On a secondary note, the national team landscape is changing quickly. Early on, it was more beneficial for the federation to pick out what they believed to be the most talented players, coddle, develop and spend most of their resources on these players.
This practice started with Eric Wynalda and John Harkes but was still in place by the time of Freddy Adu, Eddie Johnson and Eddie Gaven came along.
While spending the majority of a federation's resources on a choice few was the right choice in the early late 80's and early 90's, now that the U.S. player pool has expanded and the average skill level of said pool player is that of an MLS starter, there's little need to cultivate a choice few.
Instead, the federation needs to include as many players as possible, foster positive competition and see who rises to the top. But, of course, that means the USSF needs to coordinate with the MLS and stay in constant communication with foreign-based players—a difficult task with so many moving parts.
Some players will be overlooked, others offended, and others included that end up failing, but there won't be the pressure to have certain players workout because of the money, time and resources spent on them. Hopefully there will be a decrease in the obvious favoritism that has resulted from a little too much familiarity between some players and coaches.
If Rongen is given a senior position in identification and recruitment, then his dismissal could be a blessing in disguise.
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