Too Much Youth Might Be a Detriment to U.S. World Cup Roster

Ben TrianaFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2010

CARSON, CA - JANUARY 23:  Alejandro Bedoya #20 of USA controls the ball near midfield during their international friendly match against USA on January 23, 2010 in Carson, California. Honduras defeated USA 3-1.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Out of the most likely twenty-three man roster for the U.S. Men's National team, only five players are over the age of thirty. One, Tim Howard, is a goalkeeper, and the thirties are a keeper's prime.

Another, Brian Ching, is expected to play a substitute's role.

That leaves three "old" players that may see significant playing time. Two are vying for starting positions, Carlos Bocanegra and Jay Demerit, and the last, Steve Cherundolo, should get substantial playing time. 

Because of the average age of the U.S. player pool, the team looks to be stable for the foreseeable future.

After this summer, the only area of the team in need of the overhaul will be the defense. Unfortunately, America's best fullbacks will be in their early to mid-thirties by the next World Cup, the age when the majority of fullbacks lose a step, so they will need some youth support.

But with Jonathan Spector, Clarence Goodson, Heath Pearce, Chad Marshall, and Frank Simek all still in their twenties, with another batch of talent emerging in the MLS, there's a pretty good chance competent replacements will be found.

And yet, with all this youth, there is a clamor for more young guns right now.

Writers and fans have constructed arguments for international call-ups and World Cup roster spots for the likes of Alejandro Bedoja (23), Marcus Tracy (25), and Freddy Adu (arguably 21).

Patience does not appear to be a virtue for the U.S. fan.

A possible explanation for this trend might be the fact that the U.S. has never had a young player pool this deep in potential. Plus, the MLS seems to be taking most of its players only so far on the road to stardom that fans hope and pray their favorites will get a chance to improve at international competitions.

Therein lies the problem with this situation: There are only so many resources, so many roster spots, so many opportunities. How do the powers that be, make the best use of their resources?

The American landscape is filled with stalled soccer careers. Out of the players called up during Bob Bradley's tenure, 60 percent have had additional support from USSF (Residency camp, Generation Adidas, etc.).

While some have touted this number as proof of developmental success, keep in mind the statistic also reveals that five out of every 11 players, made it to the highest level without extra help from U.S. soccer.

Currently, in most U.S. schools, 60 percent is failing.

Now, I don't believe that these programs are a waste. Instead, such a low percentage reveals how precarious player development actually is. There is no magic formula that can tell a manager if player A plays on this team and gets X amount of playing time, he will develop into an integral part for the USMNT.

With that understanding and with such a youthful player pool, how does Bob Bradley select the best alternates and bench for his World Cup squad?

The World Cup only comes around every four years and spots in the Confederations Cup are not guaranteed, so exposure to top level soccer for most of the youngest American internationals is limited, and the value of those experiences can't be over-exaggerated.

How would the careers of Pele, Maradona, and of lesser note, Michael Owen (even injury prone) fared if they would have not been selected for their national teams at a young age, 17, 21 and 18 respectively?

At the other end of the spectrum, and a little closer to home, are the recent career paths of Taylor Twellman and Eddie Johnson. Both have seen significant minutes for the United States, succeeded in the MLS, performed well regionally in CONCACAF qualifiers, and then shockingly plateaued when facing truly "international" and competent opponents.

Naturally, managers gave both of these players numerous opportunities to overcome their challenges; Eddie Johnson still gets the nod (see latest friendly vs. Netherlands). Unfortunately, their struggles continue.

Have the coaches stalled the career of an American Pele by playing Twellman or Johnson? 

This isn't an indictment of the coaching staff or the U.S.'s developmental programs.

The only fact these examples illustrate is just how difficult it is to discern which young athletes will develop into top performers, and which ones won't.

Here's one final example:  The quintessential youngsters' event, the under-17 World Cup, has been played 13 times.  Out of the 13 finals, only five have been won by actual World Cup winners, and four of those times it was won by the same team:  Brazil (France being the other one).

Keep in mind, the youth tournaments are conducted every two years, not four, so the stronger teams should rise to the top given more opportunities.

This does happen at the under-20 tournament. However, according to under-20 standards, Argentina should have played Brazil in one out of every two World Cup finals since the 80's, and yet, they haven't won in over 20 years, let alone been in a final (the last time was 1990).

If the youth tournaments were strong predictors of later talent, then Ghana, Nigeria, and at least one Asian country should have made a World Cup final by 2010.

Instead, the tournaments end up being a coming out party for one or two gifted players, not enough to change the fortunes of entire teams. Plus, most of these gifted individuals are well known and already on their way to stardom. While these players hold the trophy and are the subject of multiple articles, the rest of the athletes continue their incremental development. Rarely are there real surprises.

Few mysteries are more confounding than the secret formula that transforms enough potential into reality. It might be easier to turn lead into gold.

The price of gold has skyrocketed over the past two years, so it might not be such a bad idea to take up alchemy.

Because the history of American prospects is such a mind-field of failures, freak injuries, and misplaced hopes, there seems little point in overloading a squad with youngsters in a player pool rife with unproven youth.

The only certainty in player development is that a few need a ticket. Someone has to play, and the careers of Pele, Maradona, and Michael Owen are difficult examples to refute.

For this World Cup, the majority of the U.S. roster spots should probably go to slightly older (for the current U.S. player pool: say...26, 27.) international role players. Bradley should take a hard look at those that have a future with the team, will have an impact during the next qualifying round and would benefit from the experience...namely, defenders.

While athletic and physical, American defenders exhibit a lack of intelligence, tactical awareness, and smart decision making. It is a position that is easy to learn but difficult to master. Experience is the only way to overcome this deficit.

It would be nice if in four years U.S. fans would not have to be exposed to pk's for shirt tugs, ejections for tackles from behind, and easy goals because a man is left unmarked or a shot from long range unchallenged, and once they have gained the experience, they can help mentor the younger players, making for a smooth transition over the next four to eight years.

Also, recent U.S. managers tend to play a more defensive style, so it never hurts to have one more defender.

Only, when it comes to the last roster spot, history has shown that a manager should pick an attacker. A couple of those adolescents worked out.


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