The Dutch coach assesses the American under-20 team as they head into the CONCACAF Qualifying tournament for the Youth World Cup.
Andrea Canales: Was it tough to make the final decisions for this qualifying roster, and how much were the choices affected by clubs restricting player involvement?
Thomas Rongen: It's always a hard exercise, because this group is fairly deep, in terms of quality. Some teams aren't very happy letting go of professional players. We also had some players who weren't able to come because of academic reasons. Education can still be a little bit of a stumbling block for us even at this level, unfortunately, but understandably. Some of our best players need to make choices between education and representing their country. Some guys can do both. Some clubs put pressure on their players to stay and others just won't allow them to go. We've had some examples in the past, like Michael Bradley. That continues with this group now. We've had a productive camp and had to make some hard choices. Some were purely soccer-related. In this environment and team, we're up against some external factors, but we still feel like we have some very capable players and can be very successful.
Jorge Flores is listed in your roster as a defender, though he usually plays as a midfielder for his club team, Chivas USA. Was the change your idea and how has the adjustment worked?
Jorge is a guy who, for us and for Chivas, has played as a left fullback and as a left midfielder. We feel that with Anthony Wallace and Brek Shea, we have three outstanding players on the left side who can play multiple positions. We still are looking at tweaking things to find the best chemistry on the left side. Clearly, Jorge is a guy can play both areas and who has had success for both club and country as a defender and midfielder. All three guys in those positions are very comfortable going forward. With this team, we try to find good versatile players who are comfortable with the ball. As a dominant team in CONCACAF, we want players who can defend, but also who give us something going forward in an overlapping situation and who are good passers. In qualifying, where you can bring only 17 field players, you need to have 3 or 4 guys who can play multiple positions, if something happens with injuries or a card situation. Jorge is one of those guys who can play two positions.
The U20 defending champions, Argentina, failed to advance from their qualifying competition. Does this make you and the team more wary as you prepare?
We always are - sometimes when we talk to players, the words sound a little hollow, but then these things happen. Internally, these things are being discussed because most of the guys do follow the international football scene. They realized, 'It if could happen to Argentina, it could happen to anyone.' We feel that we've built up a good mentality with this group, that they understand that one or two poor games could put us in a position where we don't qualify. Anytime we can find real examples, it hits home. The former champions don't make it - then they learn that you can't just show up, on all levels or regions, to be successful. That was a good message for our players. That's not where we want to be and we've got to make sure that doesn't happen.
In the last U20 cycle, some players, like Andre Akpan, were relative unknowns who then made an impact in qualifying. Are there any players in this group who you anticipate could "break out" in this tournament?
Potentially. We've looked at a lot of players this cycle, more than at any other time that I've been involved. We've searched for the right chemistry and this is a big country, plus we've searched overseas to see if there are players there who can do the job for us. There are a lot who could really contribute to this team, be it a Tony Taylor, from the University of Jacksonville, Dilly Duka, from Rutgers, who aren't necessarily houshold names who could play significant roles for us in qualifying. Brian Owmby or Sam Garza - some of these guys have never represented this country on any level.
We feel there are still players out there, in this big country who somehow go unnoticed for whatever reason. We need to continue to push the envelope and not be content to just say that everyone on the U17 team is going to play for the U20 team. There might be better players out there. All over the world, that happens. Sometimes you find some players late, similar to Ricardo Clark and Clint Dempsey. I still think there are players out there, especially in this age group, where development happens so differently - sometimes it happens very rapidly, depending on the environemt where they're at. Sometimes it doesn't happen as quickly as you would like.
It's an ongoing dynamic in soccer. I'm glad we find players who weren't necessarily chosen at a young age. It's good to find some fresh blood.
We do have players with previous experience in the last youth World Cup, such as Brian Perk, who played against Urugauy. Anthony Wallace played for us in quite a few games. We have some players with U17 experience, such as Jared Jeffries, Josh Lambo and Sheanon Williams. We also have some younger guys who can gain experience, help us out here and become the backbone of the next team, like Gale Agbossoumonde and Amobi Okugo.
* In Aaron Maund, you have a player with international U17 experience, but with Trinidad and Tobago's squad. How hopeful are you that a FIFA ruling will clear Maund to play with the U.S. U20 team in this tournament?
We're pushing a little against the deadline. We feel confident that it will be approved. Our problem is that we need to get it approved 48 hours before our first game. We feel very hopeful that it will happen. In our opinion, it's just a formality that the FIFA judge needs to rule on. We hope it will happen in the next day.
Looking ahead, assuming the team qualifies, how many changes do you anticipate making to the roster that will be at the World Cup?
The level of play from our region to the World Cup is vastly different. In our region, it is harder and harder to qualify, especially on the road, and there are good teams out there. But at the World Cup, it's another level. And between this tournament and the World Cup, we have about six months to formulate a team that can help us to win on the big international scene. We're hopeful that some of our international players can still play a role. We also know that some players who have just signed with MLS, Peri Marosevic, Brek Shea might be getting time with their teams and be set to help us if they are. Other players who are on MLS teams we felt right now weren't ready to help us in qualifying, like Alex Nimo or Ibbe Ibrahim at Toronto. The World Cup is in the fall, and we can take another look at European players and see if they can find a way to get some first team ball played. Invariably, after and if we qualify, there's always changes. Michael Bradley wasn't a part of our last qualifying, but he was at the Wolrd Cup. Since the U20 is an official event of FIFA, it's hard for teams to stand in the players' ways. We feel we will have good options when we get to Egypt, both domestic and international.
* FIFA has now approved Aaron Maund’s request for a change of association and he is now eligible to represent the United States in international matches.
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