Commentary: What we learned from US U-17s
The United States U-17 squad finished the three-match Nike International Friendlies with a 1-1-1 record. Wilmer Cabrera's side started well against South Korea, before tying Brazil and falling to tournament winners Turkey. The 270 minutes shed light on a team that will travel to the CONCACAF U-17 championships in February and, most likely, the U-17 World Cup next summer. So what did we learn?
Landon Donovan isn't walking through that door
The best American player ever announced himself to the world by winning the Golden Ball at the 1999 U-17 World Cup. It's difficult to see one of the players on the field over the weekend having the same type of impact during the 2011 tournament in Mexico. It's not that this is an unskilled group – in fact, just the opposite – but it lacks a true transcendent talent. One or more of Cabrera's charges could certainly develop into a senior national-team star, but no one will be raising any individual hardware in six months.
This team has potential to be great
While the squad is short on individual stars, the collective talent is high. The first 15 or 20 minutes against South Korea saw a US team clearly in control, combining their superior athleticism with high soccer IQ. It was one of the more impressive stretches of possession-based soccer played by an American squad on any level this year. Alejandro Guido shined in the role of playmaker, while Matt Dunn and Tarik Salkacic supported him in front of a solid, attacking-minded back four. The ingredients for a successful side are certainly in place.
Mario Rodriguez is a beast
The impossibly solid striker is the focal point of Cabrera's 4-2-3-1 formation. He plays by himself, troubling back lines with his speed, strength and soccer acumen. The Central Aztec product netted the US’ second goal on a wonderful run with the ball at his feet. He didn't score in the final two matches, but he frequently held off defenders and forced opponents to bring him down. In a way, it was reminiscent of Jozy Altidore's performance in South Africa this past summer. If Rodriguez gets better service, learns to finish and stays focused, he could surprise teams in the U-17 World Cup.
The US coaching staff will continue to find talent
The most surprising inclusion to the 20-man roster was Dunn. The FC Köln midfielder – who showed some strong play throughout the tournament – was the only player not member of the Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. His inclusion in the roster shows that the Americans will continue scouring the globe for eligible players, and his insertion into the starting lineup indicates a propensity for flexibility on Cabrera's part.
Set-piece defending could be an issue
Both Korea and Turkey found the back of the net on corner kicks, and all three of the US’ foes had free headers that could have been converted. The center back paring of captain Andrew Souders and Mobi Fehr held strong during the run of play, but they struggled to mark in dead-ball situations. Goalkeepers Fernando Piña and Kendall McIntosh were also shaky when it came to deciding to come off their line for crosses or to stay home.
Discipline could also be an issue
The US as a whole showed a concerning lack of maturity on occasion. Rodriguez is going to get hacked repeatedly and at times he was barely able to contain his frustration. He lashed out after being taken down against Turkey and could have been shown the exit, winger Mark Pelosi earned reproach against the first two opponents for throwing elbows, and other players lost their heads a bit throughout the tournament as well. Granted, the US’ rivals were frequently the instigators, but Cabrera's charges need to learn to keep their cool.
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.