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The Kids Are All Right

The Future of U.S. Soccer Comes to a Field Near You

As the United States Under-17 teams prepares to take on Brazil, Portugal, and Turkey at the Nike Friendlies, Jasper Wilson talks to the stars and the coach about the tournament and the future.

BY Jasper Wilson Posted
November 28, 2012
10:42 AM
When the United States Men's Under-17 team plays its first game of the annual Nike Friendlies Wednesday against Brazil, it will do so as defending champion. Last year, the Americans defeated the Samba Boyz 3-1 in the final. While winning is nice, these games are devoid of any real significance, so the tournament focuses on something else: development.

“If we don’t win the friendlies, it’s not the end of the world,” head coach Richie Williams said. “At the end of the day, we want to make sure we’re getting better. The biggest thing for these players is that we’ve got to catch up with the rest of the world."

The rest of the world will figure in the three-game tournament with Brazil joined by Portugal and 2011 participant Turkey. The Americans lost to the latter two squads earlier this year, but defender Conor Donovan feels that gives his team a boost. “We know what their gist of playing is going to be,” he said.

Donovan is one of the 32 players who are a part of the residency program in Bradenton, Florida, but only 20 players are on the roster for the friendlies. That's the same number of spots available for CONACAF qualifying in the spring, a motivating factor. “The pressure is for these guys there’s gonna be competition for spots coming into qualifying in April,” Williams said.

That competition is reflected daily in training sessions and is a mentality forward Rubio Rubin, U.S. Soccer’s 2012 Young Male Athlete of the Year, says is reflected in training every day: “Everyday we have to bring it at practice because if you don’t do well someone’s going to take your spot."

The Nike Friendlies mark the end of what Williams described as “not a huge results-oriented time.” This mindset will change once 2013 World Cup preparations truly get under way with CONCACAF qualifying in the spring. Williams stressed that throughout his time in charge, which began when he took over for Wilmer Cabrera in January 2012, development has been of the utmost importance.

“It’s not just that we want to win every game at all costs, we want to develop and get better and play a good style of soccer,” he said.

Donovan agrees that the focus is starting to shift toward qualification, saying “As a team we’re really starting to get ready for qualifying. The friendlies will help us mentally, physically and tactically [replicate that environment]. We’re almost where we need to be, it’s kind of inconsistent with our play sometimes. I think if we keep playing to our best ability. And everyone steps up and plays good [and] if we start to be more consistent with our play we’ll be at the level [we need to be] for qualifying.”

For captain Shaq Moore, the friendlies will help further a sense of belief in squad members, which will serve it well during World Cup preparations. “It’s really important to know that we can get results with anybody. To be competitive and knowing every time that you step on the field you can get a result,” he said. ”Giving us that confidence that we can go somewhere and compete [is huge].”

After playing a schedule full of international matches in places like Turkey, France, and Argentina this year, a tournament in the U.S. is a welcome role reversal. “It’s definitely home-field advantage for us. You would hope that’s gonna help us,” Williams said. “Hopefully, it’s a little more difficult for the other teams.”

Looking at the friendlies but also forward to the World Cup, Rubio can’t wait, but at the same time, he and his teammates aren’t getting ahead of themselves. “Going into the Nike Friendlies, we’re not worried about the CONCACAF and the World Cup,” he said. “Right now, we just want to win this tournament and take it game by game. Everyone’s just focused on that.”

His enthusiasm represents the shared, and ever-present, mood around U.S. Soccer.

“I’m really excited for the future, you know?”

Jasper Wilson is an editorial intern at AmericanSoccerNow.com.

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