Talent showcased on U-20s despite loss
teams from countries with a true soccer culture -- do in such a competition. They combined through the midfield, attacked wisely down the flanks with their outside backs, and showed as much flair and creativity as any team in the tournament. Sometimes maybe a bit too much, as players like Freddy Adu and Sammy Ochoa have so much game oozing out of their bodies that it's hard to hold them back from going 1-v-1 when the opportunity presents itself.
Even in the loss to the Italians, it's important to analyze certain situations in the match to use as a gauge of how far the U.S. has come as far as its tactical awareness on the field.
Only moments before Adu got taken down in the box and a penalty kick was called, the USA put on a virtual clinic around the 18-yard box. The ball swung wide on the left to Ochoa after a quick buildup. After not having any runners to serve to, the passing sequence went from Benny Feilhaber to Hunter Freeman and then back to Ochoa. The Mexican-born striker found Eddie Gaven in the box, who then played it on to Adu. The 16-year-old phenom then played it quickly back to Gaven, who expertly bent the ball to the far corner with the inside of his foot. For a second, it looked a little similar to the ball struck by his MetroStars teammate Amado Guevara that was the MLS Goal of the Week a few weeks back.
Even though Italian goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano made an unbelievable diving save to his left to somehow knock the ball out of bounds, this type of play is worth noting when evaluating how the U.S. performed in Holland.
If anything, the U.S. was hampered by the injury sustained by Manchester United centerback Jonathan Spector in their opening match against Argentina since he simply did not look like himself against Italy. It was a valiant effort by a kid who has a very bright future with the senior U.S. national team someday, but you wonder if Schmid would have been better off with Nathan Sturgis out there for the third straight match in Spector's absence.
Italian striker Graziano Pelle was the best player on the field during the match. As much experience as the U.S. defense boasted with two professionals within the back four, Pelle often made them look helpless with his quick shifting moves and ability to create shots for himself. His brilliant feint with his right foot that forced Marvell Wynne to make a diving slide followed by a quick cut and powerful shot with his left foot to score his third goal in for matches seemingly took the life out of the U.S.
That put Italy up 2-1 and marked the second goal given up in six minutes during a second half that saw the Italians dominate the run of play.
Bowing out in the first round of knockout play is nothing new for the U.S. when it comes to the FIFA World Youth Championships. In five out of the last six competitions the USA has qualified for going back to 1993, the U.S. has lost in the round-of-16 match. Two years ago, the group coached by Thomas Rongen as able to go a bit further, losing 2-1 to Argentina in the quarterfinals.
So from a pure results perspective, this current group didn't show any progress. But if you compared the way each team played and the overall talent level on display between that side in '03 and the one in Holland, it was no contest. The side in '03 had a bit more firepower with Eddie Johnson running amuck up front, yet it did not possess the type of overall savvy and ability to attack from all avenues that Schmid's squad displayed.
Once the sting of the loss to Italy subsides a bit, several of the U.S. players will have reason to feel good about what transpired in Holland. A player like Wynne, who wasn't even listed in the player pool for this team a year ago, made a name for himself in a hurry, as his play in just the first two matches alone earned him rave reviews from scouts in attendance. Don't think many MLS coaches weren't drooling over his size and pace up the right flank, as well. He's now in a position to play his sophomore season at UCLA, and then sign as a Generation adidas player with MLS for the 2006 MLS SuperDraft.
Barrett, who will be looking for time with the Chicago Fire upon his return, did well for himself up front, and looks like a future national team striker in an Eric Wynalda sort of mode.
Both Sturgis and Patrick Ianni showed very well in the back. Their stocks have surely gone up considering that they were fighting for playing time with Kiel McClung and Pat Phelan -- two players who did not make the final roster -- throughout the past year-and-a-half.
For Adu, it was a bit up and down. There's no doubt that the 16-year-old showed why he is known all around the world. But it was in spurts. A quick turn and well-played ball here, and a spin move and a cut to his left foot there. Otherwise, he often tried to do too much and carry the offense. His frustration showed, too, as the tournament wore on. Just as it always hasn't been easy been playing under Peter Nowak with D.C. United the past two seasons, it's all a part of the maturation process for Adu. Success won't come every time you step foot onto the field, no matter what the people in attendance are expecting out of you.
In closing, it's also important to realize what Schmid did with this group. He took over a side that Rongen had dutifully scouted and pieced together during the spring and summer of 2004. The former L.A. Galaxy head coach could have simply kept all of the same players that had been in camp and prepared for qualification without rocking the boat. Instead, Schmid brought in his own players -- guys like Feilhaber and Wynne -- even though he risked having people around the soccer world complain at any possible favoritism going on for UCLA players since he spent much of his career building that program.
Schmid was also willing to give college players an opportunity over several young professionals like Arturo Alvarez, Michael Bradley, and Jamie Watson. He did what he saw was fit even if it didn't look like the right call at the time. When you look at how well Feilhaber and Wynne played after combining for only three appearances in all of 2004, it's apparent that his eye for talent is still as good as it gets in this country. And is yet another reason why he should be sitting on another bench in MLS sometime in the near future.
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.