U.S. U-20 team in need of a new coach

October, 4, 2009

After watching the U.S. U-20s get thrashed by Korea 3-0 last Friday in the U-20 World Cup, I was asked if I had been surprised that the U.S. could lose in such fashion to Korea. The answer to which of course is a resounding no, not only because of the paucity of this particular pool of U-20s (more on that later), but because this is just the latest evidence that South Korea is just as accomplished a footballing nation as the U.S. is, on all levels from junior to senior.

Lest people forget, the 2007 U.S. U-20 national team, considered the gold standard for U.S. performance in U-20 World Cups, struggled badly against South Korea that year as well, and barely escaped with a 1-1 draw. As an aside, U.S. fans might also remember winger Lee Chong-Yong from that Korean squad. Lee moved to Bolton in the English Prem this summer and has made quite a splash, landing a starting job in the process.

Anyway, here's what I'm thinking post-tournament:

1. This should be the last U-20 World Cup that Thomas Rongen oversees. As I stated before the tournament began, I had very low expectations for this group of U-20s. As far as I'm concerned, any roster that's "headlined" by Brek Shea is one that doesn't really have the goods to compete at the international level. Having said that, failing to even qualify as one of the four best third-place finishers in the group stage is the latest indictment of Rongen's coaching, whom I firmly believe should be replaced for the next cycle.

After the previous U-20 World Cup, I wrote about how poor Rongen had been (the U.S. was carried only by standout individual performances from the likes of Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu). Many of the issues I pointed out back then resurfaced again this time in Egypt. Once more, Rongen continued to make strange lineup choices (for example, choosing the inexperienced and overmatched duo of Brian Ownby and Dillon Powers to start in midfield against Germany). The team also lacked fluidity in its play or any real cohesive tactics outside of relying on the counterattack. Its inability to develop any semblance of build-up play or alternative plan of attack was reflected in the second half against Korea, where the only game plan seemed to be to a case of punting the ball high and far into the Korea penalty area at every given opportunity.

Granted, the 2007 U-20s were far more talented than this group, but the whole point of coaching is to maximize the talent of the squad, however limited it is. This group lacked discipline (a charge that could be leveled at the '07 group, too) and frankly appeared to give up against Korea at 2-0, even resorting to embarrassing systematic fouling.

As for Shea, perhaps I'm being a bit harsh given his age, but he still appears to be little more than a size-speed-strength prospect, the NFL draft prospect equivalent of a combine workout warrior with no instincts -- which is pretty much what he appeared to be when I first saw him at Bradenton back in 2006. The fact that U.S. coaches are still trying to develop him as some kind of attacking midfield/winger/forward and seem oblivious to his lack of technical skill or composure in the final third is mind-boggling to me. In my opinion, Shea's best (perhaps only) shot at any semblance of an effective pro career is to move to center back, or perhaps even left back. Then again, we're talking about Rongen here, who somehow deemed Neven Subotic not good enough to make the '07 U.S. U-20 squad and built the U.S. attack around Shea for this tournament, so perhaps nothing should surprise me at this point.

2. Keeping it in perspective. Having said all that, let's keep this U-20 World Cup in perspective. It's important to remember the primary, if not sole, purpose of this tournament should be to produce players for the senior national team. If even one player from this group emerges as a mainstay at the senior level, the U-20 program will have done its job. Unfortunately, this is where coaching comes into play, and why I think it's critical the USSF needs to appoint a more progressive coach for the next cycle.

3. So who could emerge with the full national team? If I were a betting man, I'd say only three or four players had any kind of shot with the senior squad, and I doubt any of them will become mainstays, or even regulars. Offensively, only Dilly Duka, Mikkel Diskerud and Bryan Arguez impressed me, and only in limited spurts at that. Ike Opara could develop into a standout MLS central defender and possibly a national team defender, but only if he refines his technique and positioning. However, I think he's still a bit overrated at this point, and largely gathering plaudits based on his size/speed and physical attributes that continue to overly enamor many of those responsible for player evaluation in this country.

Jen Chang is the U.S. Soccer editor for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes regularly and is a contributer to Soccernet podcasts. He joined ESPN Studio Production in 2004 and earned a Sports Emmy award, before making the move to ESPN.com in 2005.



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