Showing up for the big show is important, but if winning is a habit, the U.S. team would do well to start early.By Andrea Canales
The U.S. under-17 program lays claim to a record that no other country has, which is admirable.
It's also a little shameful.
Despite wholesale turnover in players, and under a number of different coaches, the U.S. U-17 squad has participated in every edition of the World Cup for the age group, which no one else, not even Brazil, can claim.
During that time, the U.S. has also never contested the final. Only once, in 1999, has it even contested a semifinal. The lone CONCACAF win in the competition is from 2005 and belongs to Mexico.
Since the tournament has been held a total of twelve times, that's an even dozen of chances for the Americans to claim a little international hardware, but they never have.
Youth tournaments being the fluky things they often are, the U.S. is in some pretty decent winless company. Argentina, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, all reputable soccer countries, have never won. Argentina and Italy have never even contested a final on that level.
Obviously, though, no other country has had as many chances in the U17 tournament as the U.S.
Tournament after tournament, the U.S. has shown up as the polite guest, participating in the event, but ultimately watching other teams and players take home the big prizes and acclaim. Truth be told, the Americans have been rather anonymous in the tournament's history. Except for the one fourth-place finish in 1999, when Landon Donovan was awarded the Golden Ball, no one from the U.S. team has claimed any award in the competition.
Granted, the current U.S. team is only in a position at present to continue the participation streak, having just sealed up their qualification to the World Cup in Nigeria by winning their first two group games at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament.
However, besides continuing what is still a notable accomplishment, this U17 edition shows evidence of not being merely satisfied with showing up.
Nine goals in two games shows a team that's running and gunning already, but the U.S. players are looking to do better.
They admitted to being excited about qualification for the World Cup, but were focused on the tournament title.
"We're going to try to win this tournament and finish with more goals and keep clean sheets," said Jack McInerney, the team's leading scorer, who has four goals.
"That's what we're shooting for," confirmed midfielder Sebastian Lletget, when asked about winning the competition.
Unlike Thomas Rongen, who pulled a number of his top players in the U20 CONCACAF tournament final, U17 coach Wilmer Cabrera seems inclined to let his best players chase after the big prizes. Though he did say he would like to give untried players chances, Cabrera stressed the importance of continuing the team's mentality and performance.
However, that may mean a player like McInerney might be better off as only a 45-minute player. The striker is in the mix to win the tournament's Golden Boot, but he was feeling the effects of a hot, tiring opening clash versus Cuba. He sparkled in the opening half versus Canada, unleashing a stunning strike for the second goal, but faded after that.
"I was worn out second half," McInerney acknowledged. "I didn't do much."
Cabrera has switched out players at the interval regularly before - it was the system that he used with Lletget and Charles Renken.
"I always used to come in at halftime," Lletget explained. He now claims the starting spot due to Renken's untimely injury.
Lletget didn't seem intimidated by the idea that Mexico, with a boisterous home crowd behind them, likely stands in the way of any U.S. attempts to win the tournament.
"It's a good experience. You have to face it everywhere you go if you're going to go far in soccer."
In fact, Cabrera thought his players were up for the challenge. "I want that atmosphere for the team. The stadium full of people, cheering for Mexico and against them - I look forward to that, and they do too."
Participation is fine, but the U.S. has done that long enough.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America