Commentary: Rongen should stay as U-20 coach
Nearly two weeks have passed since Guatemala bounced the US U-20s out of the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Championship, but as soon as the final whistle blew, the calls for coach Thomas Rongen's head began from all corners of the US soccer community.
Eleven days later, Rongen still has his job. And he should keep the gig.
Sure, with the loss to Guatemala the US bid goodbye to a berth in the World Cup for the first time since 1995. But firing Rongen will not alter the score line on that brutal night in Estadio Mateo Flores, and it will not qualify the Americans for this summer's tournament. It will not change a thing.
It will, however, interrupt what has been impressive progress for the US youth program. Despite what was arguably a fluke loss on April 7, the team that failed in Central America was one of the deepest, most talented U-20s rosters ever assembled.
Ask yourself a question: Would you rather see the Americans win the 2011 U-20 World Cup — a tournament missing squads from nations including the Netherlands, Germany and Italy — or watch Sebastian Lletget, Conor Doyle and Joe Gyau contribute to the senior side in 2014?
The second option, right? Then thank Rongen, because he's a huge reason the trio will continue to don the Stars and Stripes. Two years ago, West Ham midfielder Lletget was very much undecided about whether he wanted to play for the US or pursue a spot on the Italian national team after some battles with the USSF over his place in the Bradenton residency program.
Now, however, he is happily ensconced in the American system.
Doyle — one of, if not the best, US player in Guatemala — attended a U-21 camp with Ireland as well as a couple American ones before settling on Rongen's team.
The Derby County forward doesn't regret his choice, crediting the strong team unity as one of the major factors in his decision. Give the coach credit for creating that environment.
Gyau, who clashed with coaches on the U-17 level and left the residency program for Hoffenheim after a starring turn during the 2009 U-17 CONCACAF Championship, came back into the fold under Rongen's leadership. (His return to full health played a role as well.)
These are just three examples of talented players with potential to make a difference on the senior team level that are wearing the Red, White and Blue at least in part because of the coach's presence.
The list does not stop there, however. Examine the names of the 30 players on the preliminary roster for the regional championship and you'll find multiple young men the coach and his staff unearthed from all corners of the globe.
Of course, there's no way to know exactly how much of the credit Rongen deserves, but spend some time with the team and they will tell you they love playing for him. They enjoy the freedom his system provides, the creativity it inspires and the flexibility they have during games.
The Amsterdam native has done an impressive job locating and recruiting talent from around the globe during this cycle. That will only continue as his contacts deepen and players see the potential of the US group. The fact is that the USA will qualify for the vast majority of the World Cups on any level. (You could make a case 2011 is the last major tournament the US will ever miss.)
Rongen has not been perfect. The decision to start Greg Garza on the left flank backfired. He struggles as an in-game manager, waiting too long to make changes. (Although with Bobby Wood and Eder Arreola sidelined and Dillon Powers hobbled, he did not have too many options off the bench in Guatemala.)
His critics also point to the situation surrounding Neven Subotić — the defender who suited up with the US U-20s but chose to represent Serbia at a senior level — as a massive black mark on his resume, but that was a situation headed for disaster from the beginning.
So no, Rongen is not infallible. Far from it. But his teams play an attractive, exciting brand of soccer — one that combines skill with athleticism. The team would have been dangerous in the World Cup.
Still, the US U-20s will miss the World Cup, and ultimately that's down to Rongen. He is responsible for the performance of his team, and they did not reach their goal of getting to Colombia. They fell to an inferior but inspired side in a one-off match. On any given Thursday, right?
But firing Rongen now would ignore too many of his achievements. It would set the program back. It's just bad business.
Rongen deserves many more Thursdays as coach of the U-20 team.
Noah Davis covers the Untied States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.