Over the past few months, pessimism permeated all levels of US Soccer and turned in to a referendum on Jurgen Klinsmann, Technical Director. The senior team crashed out of the Gold Cup and lost to Mexico in the Confed Cup playoff, the U17 team exited the World Cup at the group stage, and the U23 team tripped up against Honduras at home, jeopardizing an Olympic berth.
However, as recently as June, the senior team beat Holland and Germany away, and the U20s reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup, the best performance at that level since 2007. So, not all is lost? How much do youth tournaments really matter?
To gain some perspective, I looked at the US’ progress at every global tournament since 1985 across the U17, U20, U23 and senior levels. We can then look at the progression of player classes across U17 and U20 levels (color coded below). For example, players on the 2005 U17 team would then be eligible for the 2007 U20 team (both marked in green).
Player classes then combine to fuel the Olympic roster; for example, 6 players from the 2015 U20 World Cup team joined the U23 team. Finally, World Cups rosters should feature core players – those ages 25 to 29 – from earlier classes, with exceptional young players breaking through from the two prior U20 classes.
Notably, results don’t necessarily translate across age groups. The U20 class that made the quarters in 2015 didn’t even qualify for the U17 WC in 2013. The 2009 U17s advanced from the group stage, but then failed to qualify for the 2011 U20 tournament. The 1999 U17 class famously finished 4th in the World Cup, and then failed to qualify for the Olympics in 2004. Analyzed a different way, we have a fairly consistent range of performance: our most likely outcomes are an exit at the group stage or the following round.
Here’s a hypothetical group stage in Russia 2018: Argentina (currently ranked 4th in the World Football ELO ratings); Italy (14th); China (68th); USA (25th). It’s a more challenging group than 2010, though certainly easier than the 2014 group.
For the sake of argument, let’s say the US wins all three games. How high are your expectations? What does it say about the quality of the players? How good is our player development to have a squad that achieves our best World Cup group stage performance?
It wouldn’t be unprecedented: our U17s did this in the 1991 World Cup.
Two years earlier, our 1989 U20 team progressed even further, and finished 4th at the World Cup.
The 2015 youth results add to the unshakable frustration that we were supposed to be better by now, when we were finally “serious” about soccer. When previous turning points – beating Argentina at Copa America ’95, beating Brazil at Gold Cup ’98, U17s and Olympic team finishing 4th in 1999 and 2000 respectively – proved instead to be aberrations, they could be explained away by the sport’s maturity in the country US.
By now, though, there is undeniably more interest in soccer than ever before. Our U20 players have always known a domestic professional league. Major TV channels broadcast games from around the world on a weekly basis, and Leo Messi YouTube videos rack up millions of views.
So why aren’t we better?
There’s an open question of how to measure success at the youth level. Results in youth tournaments aren’t everything, but they do matter. We should try to win every tournament we enter. If that means adjusting tactically to defeat opponent, so be it. Even a top 10 team adapts when facing a top 3 team. Though results matter, we see how any single tournament result can deceive when predicting future success.
Nor are youth tournaments a glimpse of future national team stars. Though rife with the tantalizing promise of potential, youth World Cup rosters are not accurate predictors of who will play in older age groups. Looking back on that 4th place 1989 U20 team – again, our best performance at that level – Kasey Keller and Mike Burns would go on to play in a World Cup. Chris Henderson and Neil Covone made the 1990 roster. Though they didn’t appear in a World Cup, Dario Brose, Curt Onalfo, Steve Snow, and Troy Dayak all earned caps. The rest of the roster went no further with the national team. The same trend persists today.
So if youth tournaments are not just results and not just about player development, what is the point? What I like best about the youth tournaments, aside from the inherent patriotism in seeing our country’s team compete, is that they offer a snapshot of our player pool relative to the rest of the world. And over the past 20 years, that snapshot keeps telling the same story, one of an above-average side that lacks something to reach a higher plateau.
That reflection begs the question of what’s needed to get better. We’ve picked the low-hanging fruit. An improvement in baseline technical skills, an improvement in tactical understanding and collective play, and coaches who can teach this from U6 to the pros all matter. The past 20 years created more of the same type of players; there’s a reason our national team is deeper than ever, but not better at the top end. Digging deeper means we can stop waiting for “The One” player who will flip the script, and start creating an environment for program-wide improvement.