I wasn't terribly surprised when the USA under-20 team, a squad where many members do not see regular playing time (partly as a result of MLS having no reserve league right now), had its worst performance of the World Cup against a South Korea team known for speed and fitness.
Inevitably, though, the failure to advance out of the first round brings up a few questions about the developmental pipeline of the U-20 team.
One aspect that should be scrutinized is the residency program at Bradenton run by U.S. Soccer. It has long been a cradle of development for elite youth players.
Most coaches in the U.S. Soccer system, not surprisingly, defend the program.
"We continue to be successful by bringing players from our residency program through our 20s and eventually to the senior team," U-20 coach Thomas Rogen noted to Goal.com. "Landon Donovan, Jozy [Altidore], Michael Bradley are some examples of that. As long as we are able to produce those kinds of players, I think it’s worthwhile to continue that."
In some ways, putting the top players in an age-level environment for focused training isn't a new concept. England did the same thing years ago at Lilleshall. The FA ran a "School of Excellence" at the sport facilities there from 1984 to 1999, when development was ceded more completely to the clubs, despite the fact that Lilleshall helped nurture the likes of Jermain Defoe, Michael Owen, Joe Cole, Scott Parker, Sol Campbell, Jamie Carragher and Wes Brown.
Michael Owen | The English striker was a Lilleshall product
Now, without Lilleshall, the England U-20 team actually posted a worse record at the World Cup than the USA, failing to win a match, losing twice and scoring only a single goal. They did, however, manage a draw versus Uzbekistan.
Ironically, 1999, the date of Lilleshall's demise, was the same year in which U.S. Soccer decided to give the residency model a try.
There are other avenues to build up players. If any country in North America follows the standard professional club model of development, it is Mexico. The under-17 team that claimed the FIFA title for that age level was made up of many players from the famed youth academy of Guadalajara. The Chivas kids, some called them, but termed the entire team the Golden Generation.
Perhaps good sets of players really do go in cycles, because Mexico's current U-20 squad failed to qualify out of CONCACAF. In fact, since 1999, Mexico has failed to qualify for the U-20 World Cup, which is played every two years, three times (2001, 2005, 2009).
Even before Bradenton began, the USA had a pretty good record of reaching the U-20 World Cup. However, with the assistance of the residency program as a feeder, the USA has reached every U-20 World Cup since 1997, making the quarterfinals twice.
On the U17 level, the record for the USA is even more consistent, as they are the only country to participate in every edition of the World Cup at that age level. Since the Bradenton residency is directly connected to that age level (the U-20 team is not a residency squad), it no doubt bears a large measure of responsibility for that statistic.
Yet even those who can laud the consistency Bradenton helps create know that players must be pushed at a higher level to really improve.
"Eventually, we should move away from (residency) and our professional clubs should take the lead in player development, quite frankly, like it’s done in the rest of the world," Rongen said.
Here's where MLS, which may have negatively impacted the U-20 squad the most through killing the reserve league, has a chance to redeem itself through the academy systems its clubs are developing.
"Our development in most instances has been done through U.S. Soccer," Rongen explained. "The professional teams need to take a vested interest in developing players. Obviously the academy teams now are younger teams - they’re three or four years in - so it’s going to be a while before we bear the fruits"
However, a few clubs are already reaping the benefits of youth teams, and have signed players to their full rosters. Thus, they could also directly benefit from a reserve league that develops such players.
"Some teams have already signed some academy players from their respective teams," Rongen noted. "I would like to think that that will continue and that’s a good trend and a healthy trend. And again, that’s the model of the rest of the world, where pro clubs are the frontrunners in player development and not necessarily the soccer federations. At this point we’re still the frontrunners and still producing more national team players through that than MLS does."
U-20 Coach Thomas Rongen | Criticized the elimination of the MLS reserve league
Perhaps that will change. The transition may not be easy or produce results as consistently as Bradenton has, but it may one day produce more superlative ones.
Bradenton has contributed to youth team results that are nothing to sniff at, but nothing to crow about, either.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America
For a full preview of the U-20 World Cup, check out a sneak peak at Goal.com Magazine.