MLSsoccer.com continues its look back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. Our second annual “What Ever Happened To..." series rolls on with the supporting cast of the 1999 US Under-17 World Cup team, whose fortunes varied greatly as they pursued professional careers.
Where They Were Then
The 1999 US Under-17 squad was the first-ever class in US Soccer’s Bradenton Residency program, an experiment launched as part of “Project 2010,” an ambitious scheme that hoped to fast-track American soccer’s rise into the global elite.
Immersing the nation’s top young talents in a professional training environment, Bradenton worked more quickly than most expected as future stars Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, Oguchi Onyewu and Kyle Beckerman led the team to a stunning fourth-place finish at the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship in New Zealand, falling just short of the tournament final on an agonizing penalty-kick shootout loss to Australia.
Where Are They Now
Ask D.J. Countess about his time the Bradenton Residency program and the thrill flows through his voice, even 13 years removed from what he readily calls “one of the best experiences of my life.”
“The friendships I still have today – it’s my brotherhood,” says the former MLS goalkeeper (at right), whose playing days were brought to a premature end in 2007 by a degenerative bone injury in his right hand. “We created this really close bond.
“It was a heck of a soccer experience, but what we went through as a team and as a family is something that will never, ever be forgotten.”
Countess was the first-choice netminder for the ’99 team, a group of 20 teenagers who entered the new wing of the IMG Academies in sedate southwest Florida in January 1999. Inspired in part by France’s Clairefontaine National Technical Center, which nurtured Thierry Henry and so many of the other stars who led Les Blues to a World Cup trophy in 1998, US Soccer hoped to make a great leap forward by focusing its resources on this elite group.
“We preached [that] we had to get better with the ball,” recalls John Ellinger, then head coach of the U-17s and now an assistant at FC Dallas. “We were tired of opponents high-pressuring us and waiting for us to make mistakes. This group bought into [the idea] that we wanted to change that.
“The motto was ‘Respect everyone, but fear no one.’ I knew these guys bought into it. There was an internal pride within the group that they didn’t want to lose.”
Speedy and relentlessly energetic, Ellinger’s boys attacked opponents with a high-tempo approach spearheaded by Donovan’s attacking prowess. Their efforts in New Zealand made the US soccer community proud, but they themselves still felt grievously disappointed not to have reached their own goal of a world title.
“We felt like we were good enough – we had that mentality, we had that chip on our shoulder,” says Countess. “As many people think [fourth place] was such a great accomplishment for US Soccer – and it was – we believed we were the best team.”
Adds Alex Yi (below, right), a fullback on that team who now coaches in the LA Galaxy youth academy: “It was a special group of guys who made a lot of sacrifices to be down in Florida and just kind of commit to the things required of us. We felt that kind of pressure, that responsibility of wanting to forge US soccer ahead and make it recognizable in the world. We kind of knew that, and we had that weight on us.”
Bradenton was judged a success, and the residency program, now twice as large, continues to churn out young talent today. And while not everyone from Ellinger’s group enjoyed the same professional success as their famous teammates, all have carried the lessons and memories of a pioneering adolescence into their current pursuits.
Team co-captain Kenny Cutler was a central contributor for Real Salt Lake during the club’s difficult expansion era under Ellinger, then spent a season with his hometown club, the third-division Richmond Kickers, before returning to Utah to enter the financial industry as an equity derivatives specialist. He lives near Beckerman and the two see each other often.
“There’s no question that the lifestyle is incredibly different,” he says. “[But] playing sports in general, you learn so many life lessons that you can incorporate into finance or the business world. ...We work in teams and everyone is quite competitive – a lot of Type-A personalities, which is what you have at the level of soccer we were fortunate enough to play at.
|US Roster at 1999 U-17 WCup|
“It’s just how you apply that competitiveness and drive in a much different field.”
Countess finished his career in Argentina and returned home to California to work as a salesman for his family’s document-management business. He and Yi are two of several ‘99ers living in Southern California who reunite regularly. That group also includes Seth Trembly, a midfielder who showed flashes of exquisite talent with the Colorado Rapids before becoming a youth coach, first in Denver and now San Diego, and Nelson Akwari.
A sturdy center back who anchored Ellinger’s early RSL teams, Akwari subsequently spent time with several second-division clubs, then thought he had carved out a lasting place with the Vancouver Whitecaps, only to be cut in late 2010 as the Canadian side prepared to move up to MLS.
Last year, he played for the LA Blues of USL PRO while studying full-time at UCLA, where he hopes to eventually earn a degree in chemical engineering. Akwari and his wife are expecting their second child next month, which may determine whether he spends another year with the Blues or calls time on his pro career.
“I want to hold out and keep the dream alive as much as possible,” he reports, “but the older I get, the more I want to definitely get my degree and have that in my back pocket as well.”
Abe Thompson is in a similar boat. A starting striker for the ’99 squad who went on to become a prolific scorer at the University of Maryland, Thompson then tallied 15 goals over five MLS seasons as an impact substitute for Dallas, Kansas City and Houston before dropping down to NASL to play for the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers last year. A Strikers official says the club hopes to have him back in uniform for 2012.
Jordan Cila was another gifted Bradenton product who made the difficult decision to put off what seemed like surefire MLS stardom in order to attend Duke University. He eventually played for Colorado, RSL and the New York Red Bulls, where he began a transition into Manhattan’s fast-paced financial sector. His old teammate Bryan Jackson also lives in New York City, but works as a sports performance coach.
A close friend of Beckerman dating back to the U-15 level in the Olympic Development Program, Cila was Donovan’s roommate in New Zealand and still remembers the stuffed animal that the future superstar carried with him on road trips.
“I got to see that teddy bear firsthand,” recalls Cila (at right) with a chuckle. “We were kids. Leaving home for the first time and moving away was definitely scary.
“I think the guys who ended up being megastars are certainly guys that you would’ve expected to be – just so talented and great players. I’m actually more surprised that even more guys didn’t end up being megastars. That’s just the luck of the draw, I guess, and the little things.”
Amid their own daily lives, the ’99 squad’s retirees still eagerly follow the exploits of their teammates on the world stage.
“I could not be more proud of those guys,” says Yi. “It makes us happy to see them doing what they’re doing. I read that [Onyewu recently] had two goals for Sporting, and that just made me smile. I don’t think of Gooch as this incredible defender and this giant stud – I think of a goofy kid with Chapstick in his pocket during practice.”
Coming of age as the “guinea pigs” (Cutler’s term) and “test dummies” (Cila’s) of US Soccer’s bold new initiative gave these men a unique place in history, and forged loyalty that has lasted far beyond their successful time together on the field.
“When I look back, I remember more those great relationships and I’m so grateful to keep in touch with so many of the guys that I played with on a regular basis,” says Cila. “When you look back and see what you take away from the game, those are really the great things.”
What They Said
“That team will always hold a special place in all of our hearts. We epitomized the word ‘team’ and genuinely love each other and wanted each other to be successful. Those were some of the best years of my life.”
– Landon Donovan, Golden Ball winner at the 1999 U-17 World Cup
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com. Additional reporting by Jonah Freedman.