GUATEMALA CITY — Thomas Rongen has enlisted plenty of talent for the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Guatemala, but he needs a select few to excel if the favored Americans expect to advance to the World Cup. MLSsoccer.com takes a look at five players who will fill that role.
Gale Agbossoumonde: As one of only two members of the roster to figure in the 2009 U-20 World Cup – midfielder Dillion Powers was the other – the central defender will play a leadership role by default. He's bounced around the globe during the past 18 months, but showed well enough to earn a cap for the senior squad against South Africa in November.
Agbossoumonde will be a physically imposing presence both defending his own net and going forward on free kicks (think of a slighter Oguchi Onyewu, with more hair.) Rongen picked eight defenders to travel – although Perry Kitchen could find himself deployed in a defensive midfield role – but Agbossoumonde will be in the middle of the group, both literally and metaphorically.
[inline_node:327822]Joe Gyau: The 18-year-old exploded on to the national scene after a standout performance during the 2009 U-17 World Cup. He suffered injuries and setbacks but finally returned to the field in the fall, and continued to realize his immense potential.
Gyau torched Canada during a December friendly and, along with 1860 Munich's Bobby Wood, stood out during the January training camp. He could dominate on the flanks in Guatemala, as few opponents will have fullbacks who can contain his size, speed and skill. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim have a special player in their midst, and Rongen understands how to use his talent.
Perry Kitchen: The first word anyone associates with the D.C. United player is "leader." That's not to diminish his considerable skills on the field – the 19-year-old immediately found himself a starting role on Ben Olsen's Black-and-Red – but it demonstrates how much of a difference-maker the Akron product can be. Nowhere will this be more important than in the harsh, unfriendly conditions in Guatemala.
Kitchen has lined up at central defense for DC, and Rongen should deploy him there to help organize the backline and move forward. Kitchen will have former Akron teammate Zarek Valentin alongside him, as well as Agbossoumonde. The three formed part of the defensive crew that helped the US go undefeated during the Milk Cup. (The Americans conceded their only goals of the tournament in the game the trio did not start.) Expect a repeat in Central America, with Kitchen leading the way.
Sebastian Lletget: The West Ham midfielder is one of the most experienced players in the pool, training at the famed English club where Jonathan Spector, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and other stars developed their games. He's one of the best playmakers on the roster, and can be a calming presence in the center of the field.
Lletget, who could have chosen to play for Italy, is determined to demonstrate his worth not only to Rongen but also to US senior boss Bob Bradley. If he can carry the squad to the World Cup and impress the US coaching staff in Colombia, a senior team call up can't be that far behind (call it the Mikkel Diskerud path).
[inline_node:324123]Amobi Okugo: Rongen prefers playing a 4-3-3, and will likely trot out the formation against the weaker teams in the tournament. When he opts for a more conservative style, however, the Philadelphia Union destroyer will be the player who finds himself responsible for breaking up opponent forays and linking the back line with the attack.
Okugo impressed on the Generation Adidas trip to Spain over the winter after making 12 appearances in MLS last season. He is brimming with confidence and appears poised to make a leap in his second year in Major League Soccer. A solid tournament in Central America will send him even further along that path.
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.