US U-20 Roster: A Growing Trend?
This week, lost amidst the countless reviews of the United States’ performance in South Africa, coach Thomas Rongen released the roster for the U-20 national team’s upcoming domestic training camp in California, part of their extended preparations for the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup qualifying. To the extent that deeper meaning can be found in the invites to a training camp that gathers a full nine months before qualifying is likely to begin, the roster seems to offer further evidence that young American players are continuing to stretch across the globe, choosing to develop at clubs throughout Europe and the Americas, rather than staying stateside.
If you’re unfamiliar with how international youth soccer works, there are World Cups held every two years at the U-17 and U-20 levels, while U-23 teams compete every four years to earn a spot at the Olympics (and the United States also fields a U-18 team). Unique to the United States, the U-20 squad is historically comprised of a mixture of college and professional players, all of whom in the current cycle were born after 1991.
What seems to be setting the current U-20 pool apart from its predecessors, however, is the number of professional players in the ranks who play abroad. There have always been a handful of young Americans playing overseas, such as Jonathan Spector and Jovan Kirovski at Manchester United, and Frank Simek and Danny Karbassiyoon at English rivals Arsenal. Yet the trend to move abroad early in the development process appears to be accelerating, and quickly.
Now, it’s important not to make too much of this one roster, since outside factors certainly help to dictate who will be available for any individual camp. A session in the summer months affords Rongen the opportunity to bring in foreign-based players who would otherwise be unavailable, due to the August-through-May schedule adhered to by most leagues outside of the United States. Furthermore, MLS teams are approaching mid-season, and are understandably unwilling to lose important young players for a routine national team training camp.
However, this roster does reflect a broader trend that first appeared last December with the cycle’s inaugural camp. Since then, the team competed in the 2010 Copa Chivas tournament in Mexico last January, the Dallas Cup in March, and the Cor Groenewegan Tournament in the Netherlands in May. As a result, the sample size seems large enough that we should be able to glean a decent understanding of how the player pool and potential roster is beginning to shape up.
The striking thing about the upcoming camp is the distribution of the professionals. Major League Soccer will have a lone representative in Conor Shanosky of DC United. On the other hand, eight players are based in Mexico, including a trio from C.F. Monterrey, while others will be travelling from Costa Rica, Brazil, and Portugal.
By my count, 10 MLS-based players have been involved thus far in the cycle (I could easily have missed one or two, since the official player pool on the US Soccer website is out of date). Included in the December camp were Moises Hernandez (FC Dallas Juniors), Cesar Zamora (Chivas USA), Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls), Tristan Bowen (LA Galaxy), Amobi Okugo (Philadelphia Union) and Jack McInerney (Philadelphia Union). Brought in for the Copa Chivas were Michael Ambrose (FC Dallas), Bryan Gallego (New York Red Bulls), Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), and Faud Ibrahim (Toronto FC). Up to this point in the cycle, that’s it.
The contingent from abroad, however, has been growing. Sebastian Lletget (West Ham United), Will Packwood (Birmingham City) and Cody Cropper (Ipswich Town) are based in England, following a path that has become relatively well worn in recent years, and they are joined by a growing diaspora on the continent. Samir Badr (FC Porto), Gale Agbossoumonde (SC Braga) and Greg Garza (Sporting Lisbon) are developing in Portugal, where Garza just played a part in Porto’s U-19 league title. In Germany, Parker Walsh and Bobby Wood are teammates at 1860 Munich. Elsewhere, Frabrice Picault (Cagliari Calcio) is in Italy; Erik Benjaminsen (Stabaek) is in Norway; Lester Dewee (Olympique de Marseille) is in France; George Pantelic (FK RAD Belgrade) is in Serbia; and Alex Molano (Dinamo Zagreb) is in Croatia.
Interestingly, the largest group of young Americans is clustered in Mexico. Justin Perez, Cristian Flores and Julio Cesar Castillo are all employed at C.F. Monterrey. They are joined by Victor Garza at Tigres; Ernest Nungaray at Monarcas Morelia; Roberto Romero at Cruz Azul; Adrian Ruelas at Santos Laguna; and Moar Salgado at C.D. Guadalajara. Further south, Ronald Mendrano Williams joins the squad from L.D. Alajuelense in Costa Rica, while Kevyn Batista represents South America, playing at Desportivo Brasil in Brazil.
Obviously there’s still a long way to go until final roster decisions are made, and there’s no doubt that Major League Soccer will be well represented on the final list, with players like McInerney and Okugo helping to lead the team into Colombia. Yet the growing trend of young American talent moving abroad is certainly something to watch. As this squad develops over the next eight months, it will be fascinating to watch how the makeup of the roster changes. The results will not just have an effect on the future of the National Team, but could also raise questions about the future of youth development in the United States.