An Informed Opinion
Is the United States Ready For a Full-Time U-23 Team?
ASN Contributing Editor Brian Sciaretta has a plan that could just push U.S. soccer to a higher level. It will require plenty of effort and money, but it makes a whole lot of sense.
BY Brian Sciaretta PostedTHERE IS NO QUESTION that interest in soccer in the United States is at an all-time high. The national team and MLS draw well, while youth participation from coast to coast rivals that of any other sport. The desire is there for American soccer to rival top European nations but just about everyone—including fans, players, agents, and coaches—all have drastically different opinions as to what is needed to take the next step. Like everyone else, I have a suggestion and I will offer it. It’s not something that will revolutionize American soccer but it is something that would pay significant dividends to the U.S. national team. Here you go: a full-time U.S. U-23 national team that plays during MLS off-seasons and, most importantly, during FIFA-international dates. Currently Europe has this with their U-21 squads—which is really a U-23 team since the 21-year-old age limit is for players at the start of U-21 Euro qualifying, not when the finals take place. But, as of now, CONCACAF and most other federations do not have full-time U-23 teams. The U.S only has a U-23 team for the Olympics every four years and that is a relatively small amount of time during a four-year cycle. Besides, it leaves a ton of players out of the U-23 system. A player could be 19-years-old during the Olympics and not make the team due to his youth and then be too old for the following Olympics.
October 29, 2013
October 29, 2013
In addition, FIFA rules do not require players to be released for Olympic qualifying in CONCACAF so an even greater number of players are ruled out. In 2012, Danny Williams, Timmy Chandler, Joshua Gatt, and Jozy Altidore were all eligible for Olympic qualifying but did not participate. So why would a fulltime U-23 team important? Presently there is a huge gap left for many players between participating at the U-20 level and full national team level. Often years can go by between when a top U.S. U-20 player plays in the U-20 World Cup and when that player gets a shot with the national team. And when (or if) he does get a shot with the national team, so much time has passed that often systems—or coaches—have changed. Adjustment can take a long time and diminish the players' effectiveness. Take Mix Diskerud. He was first brought into the U-20 team in 2009 for the World Cup but his appearances for the U.S. program were infrequent over the next four years. (They've only become somewhat frequent in recent months.) Diskerud played in a friendly in 2010 and attended another January camp in 2011. If not for a bold move where he arranged with his club (rumored to be at his own personal expense) the right to play in 2012 Olympic qualifying camps, he would not have played in that tournament. Diskerud is now part of the U.S. team but only after long stretches of inactivity within the program. He’s not alone either. If there was a full-time U.S. U-23 program in place, that squad could play during international windows and feature many top prospects who are not quite ready for the full U.S team could. Imagine Luis Gil, DeAndre Yedlin, Duane Holmes, Chris Klute, Bobby Wood, Brek Shea, John Brooks, Amobi Okugo, Jack McInerney, Alonso Hernandez, and Cody Cropper still being active within the U.S. setup. It’s hard to think that a player like Huddersfield Town’s rising star Duane Holmes, who is still only 18, is too old for a youth competition with the United States until the U-23 team assembles—likely at the end of 2015 or early 2016. Holmes is not alone. Right now, most of these players mentioned are not in any U.S. international setup and it could be a long time before they are. Still, they remain some of the best prospects in the country, and keeping them active in the U.S. system is important. With a U-23 team they could be playing together for the United States during next month’s international break. It would prove to be invaluable because when the time comes when they are needed for the full national team, there would be a much easier transition if these players had been exposed to an ongoing national team program. Admittedly, such a proposal would require MLS to observe the FIFA calendar by not playing during international dates, but if Europe can get youth players released during international breaks (even for friendlies) why can’t the U.S. Soccer Federation? The U.S.S.F. has spent a lot of money over the years on the U-17 residency program, and for a long period that was necessary. Times have changed, however, with MLS clubs expanding their role in youth development. There are simply more ways for young teenagers to develop outside of Bradenton, Florida. If you look at the last U-20 team, few players came from the U-17 residency program, and only Kellyn Acosta, Kendall McIntosh, Mario Rodriguez, and Luis Gil had played in a U-17 World Cup. By shifting focus away from the U-17s and toward a full-time U-23 program, money could be spent on players who are far more likely to be part of the U.S. national team in the future. It would also keep these top prospects involved within the U.S. setup at a period where there is an unnecessarily long period of time without international play. Who would the U-23 team play, you ask? Determining opponents/competitions is the biggest hurdle in establishing a U-23 team. Right now, European countries are the only nations that have full-time teams for this age group. CONCACAF and CONMEBOL do not have competitions at the U-23s, outside of Olympics-related events. A U.S. U-23 team would likely have to play mostly friendlies, but why would U.S Soccer not attempt to take the lead in establishing regular U-23 competitions outside of Europe? The U.S. could have its own competitions outside of confederation events. It could be similar to the old U.S. Cup but in this case it would be for U-23s and not full national teams. Creating this sort of momentum would require real effort, but it's likely that other countries could be persuaded into seeing the benefit of having a U-23 team as well. Do you know the last time the U.S. had a full U-23 team, its best players from both MLS and Europe, together for a competition? It was the 2008 Olympics. And Michael Bradley, Stuart Holden, Maurice Edu, Sacha Kljestan, Jozy Altidore, and Charlie Davies all parlayed their performances in that tournament into more prominent roles with the full national team. A full-time United States U-23 team would keep top young players active and allow for a seamless transition into the full national team. It is a bold and expensive step, but one worth taking as U.S. Soccer continues to look for ways to improve and break through into top levels of international soccer. Brian Sciaretta is a frequent ASN contributor. Follow him on Twitter.