U.S. U-20s face a watered-down German lineup
CAIRO -- Back in April, when the American U-20 national team learned its draw for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, the opening match against European champion Germany promised to be a staunch test against one of the tournament favorites.
But clubs from Germany's Bundesliga have proved determined to change that equation drastically, in favor of the Americans. Since last year's European U-19 championship, which doubled as qualifying for the U-20 World Cup, teams from Germany's top flight have promoted a number of the country's youth stars to first-team status and broken the bank to purchase others who previously performed for lower-division teams.
Now, in the midst of the Bundesliga season, and with the potentially month-long U-20 World Cup on the horizon, many of those clubs balked at releasing their young players for the tournament. When a FIFA appeal went unheeded, the German Federation had to remake most of the roster for Egypt, without many of the stars who would have made the team such a formidable opponent.
So as the tournament kicks off, the Americans' opening matchup now looks just as winnable as any other of their first-round games. Coach Thomas Rongen's team will be eager to take points from the Germans and get itself into pole position in a tough group.
Despite the roster issues, Rongen says Germany has made great strides at the youth levels and will field a team that merits the respect of its opponents.
"I think overall they've done a great job the last few years at the youth level," Rongen said. "One of their successes is that they've changed their developmental strategy."
Some of those changes stem from the increasing diversity of the German nation, which has resulted in German youth teams that are beginning to mirror the U.S. in drawing players from disparate ethnic backgrounds. One of Germany's primary threats in attack will be Richard Sukuta-Pasu, a precocious forward in the mold of Jozy Altidore, born in Germany to Congolese immigrants. The German attack also will be bolstered by midfielders Cihan Kaptan and Semih Aydilek, Germans of Turkish descent who play their professional soccer in their parents' homeland.
|U.S. U-20 men's schedule|
U.S. vs. Germany
Mubarek Stadium; Suez, Egypt
9:45 a.m. ET, ESPN Classic, ESPN360.com
"They've been able to converge some of their foreign players," Rongen said. "So they've got a very interesting mix of the organization and discipline that Germany always brings to the plate. But now the youth teams especially have become really technically astute and adventurous when they go forward, which is something you really didn't see from Germany in the past."
The Americans also will have to deal with midfield duo Lars and Sven Bender, twin brothers who both moved to Bundesliga clubs this summer from second-division team 1860 Munich. But the U.S. caught yet another break when Florian Jungwirth, a defender who captained the German team in qualifiers and teamed with the Benders in the youth ranks at 1860 Munich, was suspended for this match after seeing a red card in the European U-19 final last year.
While Rongen's players might not be able to match the pedigrees of the German players' club teams, they better the Germans in diversity in more ways than one. The American squad includes players from a range of soccer backgrounds -- including a handful of players from MLS, a few from professional teams in Europe, a number of collegians beginning their seasons in the NCAA and even a USL player thrown in for good measure.
Coming from such a wide array of situations, many of the Americans had not had the chance to play or practice together in several months until recent weeks. To address that issue, Rongen led the team through a week-long preparatory camp in Cyprus before continuing to Egypt. During their stay in the Mediterranean, the Americans won a pair of friendlies by 2-0 score lines, first besting Trinidad and Tobago, and then Australia -- a pair of rivals the U.S. had been unable to defeat in meetings earlier this year.
Besides building familiarity among those yet to play together, Rongen hopes with the friendly matches to have ratcheted up the fitness of his players, many of whom have not been seeing regular game action for their teams.
"College just started, so we've got some guys who have played only one or two games before they get to the World Cup," Rongen said. "Game sharpness is going to be something we need to seriously look at in the way we build our team. And the guys that start against Germany are the guys we feel can give us 90 minutes."
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Although the American coach and players have said they will rely on a defense-first mentality that begins at the back with star goalkeeper Brian Perk, Rongen's team also will hope to show flashes of attack against Germany, through a midfield and forward corps unproven but teaming with potential.
Among the attackers anxious to prove themselves right off the bat is FC Dallas regular Brek Shea. While the Americans likely will be seen as the underdogs in their opening match despite the Germans' watered-down roster, Shea said his team can no longer count on the advantage of being overlooked at international tournaments.
"Every time the U.S. plays now, people are starting to have a lot more respect than 10 years ago," he said. "Last time out, they made it all the way to the quarters, and no one expected them to even get out of their group."
When the Americans take the field Saturday in Suez, they will do so wanting to avoid falling into a hole before facing their second opponent, a talented Cameroon team. But the U.S. also will know the odds of getting a point, or even three, out of its match with the European champions look much better than they did back in April.
Brent Latham covers U.S. soccer for ESPNsoccernet. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio and can be reached at email@example.com.