At the U-20 World Cup held in Canada last summer, the U.S men's team reached an important milestone when it confidently reached the quarterfinals. It gave evidence that the U.S. can produce a side capable of contending for a finalist position.
Names like Robbie Rogers, Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu held their own on the world stage and brought skill and technique to the table.
Interestingly during the buildup to the tournament, U.S. coach Thomas Rongen stated his belief that the team was "behind" previous sides in technical terms. The squad's response was to outperform Brazil, Poland and Uruguay and bow out of the tournament with U.S. Soccer's reputation firmly enhanced.
Rongen is now building toward Egypt 2009, and this week takes his U-20 squad to England for a series of games. The U.S. will play three friendlies against the reserve teams from EPL squads Bolton (May 7), Manchester United (May 8) and Liverpool (May 10).
For the players, it's a considerable opportunity to put down markers with scouts from Europe's best league in attendance, as former U.S. youth players Jon Spector, Zak Whitbread and Johann Smith found out on previous trips.
For Rongen, it represents the continuation of a development program that will ensure he has seen literally hundreds of potential youth internationals, before whittling his squad down to 24 players in preparation for the World Cup qualifiers.
"This cycle has been the most exhaustive and comprehensive so far," Rongen said. "We are still looking at potential players from all levels, be it Europe or high school. We are now seeing the fruits of further investment in our scouting network and developing youth programs."
Rongen said his global scouting network appears to have unearthed some gems, and is having an impact on the pattern for players making it into the national team pool.
"There are 10 players that play in Europe who have been brought to our attention," he said. "Kyle Davies is a well-known player, but we are now seeing more in the Frank Simek mold: players with U.S. passports raised in Europe.
"Hertha Berlin's Alfredo Morales has been called up twice, and he was born and raised in Germany. This is something that we haven't had in previous years."
Rongen said he has also noticed the type of player has altered during his tenure with the U-20 team.
"Six years ago this phenomenon wasn't there, the pool was college players and the odd professional player," he said. "Now many of the players are MLS, or European professionals. Often we can see these players develop more rapidly."
Bosnian-born Peri Marosevic certainly adds to the international flavor of the squad, but admits that squad diversity brings its own set of problems.
"The results were poor in Portugal, we did not show what we could do," Marosevic said. "When you don't play together regularly, it makes a big difference in knowing where your teammates like the ball, as well as things like bonding."
Domestically, Rongen is not as impressed with the talent emerging from U.S. Soccer's grass roots, but is happy the national team now has scope to select players beyond the traditional cosmopolitan areas.
"We are now finding players in Arizona and Minnesota -- I would consider these non-footballing areas," Rongen said. "The quality is definitely improving across the board, but at the highest level domestically, I'm not so sure."
Rongen's problems also exist within the national team setup. A weaker playing pool makes the option of turning to U-20 veterans Adu and Altidore even more attractive, but he expects to end up in a battle of wits with the senior team.
"Right now we have a lot of gaps in a lot of positions. The only two standout players are Altidore and Adu," Rongen said. "We simply don't have the Clint Dempseys and Eddie Johnsons of previous years."
Rongen also admits that somewhere along the line, national team politics will have a big say in the future of his squad. "Both can play in [World Cup] qualifying, so it's a question of do we want to win [youth] World Cups, or move them into the senior setup because they are at that level."
Marosevic's horizon is not so complex, but he still must overcome many obstacles to achieve his World Cup dream. Rongen is now a lot more confident in asking far harder technical questions of his squad, as the young striker revealed.
"Our coach is a former Ajax player, and he makes it very clear having a great touch is paramount," Marosevic said. "The technical demands placed on us are high, and he expects a winning mentality."
Despite the expectations placed on young shoulders, the German youth player struggled to contain his excitement at the thought of touring England. "It's going to be amazing, England is the home of football," Marosevic said.
"The passion and desire is unrivaled, it's where you want to be as a player, and I'm looking forward to showing how far American soccer has come."
With a raw and inexperienced squad, Rongen readily admits he could use the help of Adu and Altidore in his lineup.
"We are searching for our identity, we don't have any decision-makers, so it will be tougher getting to the World Cup this time," Rongen said.
Rongen, with a playful glint in his eye, goes on to stress the side's need to be "dogmatic," and emphasizes the merits of "organization and discipline." But the former MLS coach, can't maintain his poker face forever. Fans heard the same statements in 2006 only for the U.S. team to light up the tournament with moments of real flair and imagination. Looking between the lines, Rongen might be able to work his magic once again with the class of 2009.
Andrew Rogers is a freelance contributor to ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.