The U.S U-17 men's national team arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, on Thursday for the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers later this week in far from ideal circumstances after two heavy defeats on the recent tour of Argentina (March 21-30).
After victory against Bolivia, Wilmer Cabrera's side suffered a mauling at the hands of Argentina and a demoralizing defeat against Uruguay.
Before the side's nightmare in South America, the squad overcame Venezuela at Bradenton Academy in Florida. In the opening tie on March 12, Cabrera's second string gained a credible 0-0 draw, despite extreme provocation from the visitors.
In goal, Spencer Richey kept a clean sheet and continues to make life difficult for the selectors. His communication with an unfamiliar defensive back line helped reduce the opposing team to long-range efforts, and Richey's agility, combined with a 6-foot-1 frame, is impressive.
In the back line, Cristian Flores has made excellent progress since coming into the academy at the beginning of the year. Against Venezuela he showed good reading of the game and good positional awareness.
The U-17 first team then beat Venezuela 2-0 on March 14, with well-taken goals from Bryan Duran and Luis Gil.
Duran's performance highlighted his importance to the team's fluidity. The midfielder's tight control gives him time to find the right passes and provides a good offensive tempo to the side.
|U.S. U-17 schedule|
|U.S. vs. Cuba
Estadio Caliente, Tijuana, Mexico
7 p.m. ET
U.S. vs. Canada
U.S. vs. Honduras
Captain Jared Watts said he felt that Venezuela pushed the U-17s to the limit. "They were an incredibly physical [team]," he said. "Coach Cabrera has impressed on us the need for total concentration and discipline."
The U-17s would show that discipline in their opening stop on the South American tour. Against Bolivia on March 23, the U.S. emerged with a 2-1 win in Defensores de Belgrano, Buenos Aires. Stephen Jerome opened the scoring in the second half before Bolivia hit back. A trademark free kick from Duran gave the U.S. a victory.
The U.S. team's previous encounter with Argentina in 2008 had resulted in a 3-0 thrashing. Eight months later, on March 25, Cabrera's ambition to match the leading nations lay in tatters: The hosts put three goal past the U.S. in the first half en route to a 5-1 win in Deportivo Italiano, Buenos Aires.
"We pushed it with this last tour, maybe too far," assistant coach Paul Grafer said. "We could have gone on playing domestic games or weak opposition, but that served little purpose ahead of the qualifiers."
Since Feb. 1, the U-17s have toured Europe once and South America twice. Attempts to harden the side so close to the qualifiers could affect confidence before matches against Cuba, Honduras and Canada.
"We have been playing a lot of international games recently," Watts said. "We've come a long way but were mentally off; we are also a different team without Jack McInerney."
Against Argentina, Cabrera's first-choice midfield (Duran, Gil, Charles Renken and Carlos Martinez) couldn't get near the home side's midfield quartet. The hosts pulled the U.S. apart, and the side looked sluggish and visibly fell away after going a goal down at 17 minutes.
Given how tired the team was, the wisdom of pushing young players this hard must be questioned. U.S. coaches, however, were looking at the bigger picture.
"The game against Argentina was an anomaly in the side's progression," Grafer said. "We went toe-to-toe with one of the best sides but tired. We have to play the best as equals, holding out for battling draws and limiting the degree to which we lose is not part of the program."
Against Uruguay on March 27, a side the U-17s had beaten in Montevideo last year, the U.S. took the lead in the second half through Sebastian Lleget but collapsed to lose 3-1 in Defensores de Belgrano, Buenos Aires.
It was a poor effort from the defense. Poor marking accounted for the first two goals, and a third was added on the break with Cabrera's side chasing the game.
With the U.S. team's preparations seemingly having fallen apart, the absence of forward Jack McInerney was even more telling. His work rate and goals make him the center of the team, and in his absence, Cabrera's side poses little threat in front of goal.
This has clearly given Cabrera food for thought. The team lineups in Argentina were not published on the USSF Web site to stop CONCACAF rivals from gaining an early insight. But this counterintelligence did not faze those opponents who have been scouting the side since December 2007 or looking at his lineup on the Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay Association Web sites.
Cabrera's reluctance to discuss the poor performance in Buenos Aires is also intriguing. Ultimately it is likely part of a siege mentality that he is hoping to infuse in his side heading into the qualifiers.
The 2007 U.S. U-17 squad had a much lighter program before its World Cup qualifiers (a brief tour of Honduras and Guatemala a month before the qualifiers), but was exposed in South Korea. In theory, Cabrera's squad should be better prepared when and if it reaches Nigeria.
Cabrera has the character, experience and squad to pull through this mini-crisis. However, if the U-17s come unstuck in Tijuana, his employers are likely to take a dim view of the players' being exposed to potential exhaustion and loss of confidence so soon before the CONCACAF championship.
Andrew Rogers is a freelance contributor to ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.