Richie Williams and his U.S. Under-17 charges came up short in Panama, falling 3-1 to Honduras Sunday in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF U-17 championships. For the first time, the U-17 World Cup will take place without American representation.
The failure of yet another U.S. youth team in a regional competition in recent years (the U-20s missed the World Cup in 2011, the U-23s failed to qualify for the Olympics last year) leads naturally to a harsh assessment of the American youth program, and more broadly, the youth development setup in the United States. Either you believe that America is producing less talent now than before, or you swallow the line that a one-off loss in a short tournament doesn't necessarily reflect the state of game at the lower age levels.
Maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much if Mexico wasn’t outclassing the U.S. at nearly every level.
Whatever you choose to believe, it's important to remember that it’s not all bad. As MLS kicks their youth academies into a higher gear and homegrown players start to make their mark at the senior level, there’s reason to be optimistic about the future. This U17 team lost to Honduras when it mattered most, but there’s obvious talent in the pool. Variables of tournament coaching and the program's shifting style don't mean some of these players won’t become very good professionals.
In the interest of finding the silver lining, here are a few positives to take away from the negative of a missed U17 World Cup:
1. MLS academy players showed well
One of the stars of the tournament for the Americans was New York Red Bulls academy midfielder Chris Lema. Across the U.S. roster are several players attached to various MLS academies, in various ways. While those affiliations don't matter as much while the U-17s are in residency at U.S. Soccer's Bradenton academies, it's a positive sign that so many players at a level as young as U-17 are going through the youth system at MLS clubs.
2. American players are getting more technical
Sure, it's disturbing that this development has yielded such mixed results across the youth program, but it's clear the technical competence of American players is improving. Whether that's part of improving coaching at the youth levels or a new generation of American players being influenced by soccer in places like Mexico hardly matters; the more technically adept American players are, the more possibilities there are on the field.
3. The style shift is happening
Like the last point, the issue of results is still resolving itself. On one hand, American youth teams are more dangerous than in previous cycles. On the other, they are disturbingly inconsistent and often give up disastrous goals. We can take heart in the truth that results at the youth level “matter” less than those at the senior level.
Does that mean everyone involved in the loss gets a pass? That probably depends the success of the senior team when kids currently in the youth programs reach the top of the ladder.
None of those positives have stemmed the tide of questions being asked about the U.S. Soccer youth program or the coaches in charge of shepherding those teams to their respective top competitions. The question we should be asking ourselves, however, is whether American players are truly worse now than they were in the 15 previous CONCACAF tournaments through which the United States qualified for the 15 previous U-17 World Cups.