BRIAN SCIARETTA - Friday, March 26, 2010
As the US U-20 national team gets ready to take part in the 2010 Dallas Cup, it will mark the third time head coach Thomas Rongen will assemble a U20 squad this cycle as it builds towards the 2011 World Cup in Colombia.
"You know, any time we enter a tournament, we play to win obviously," Rongen told YA about the upcoming Dallas Cup. "I think it's important for us to establish a certain mindset, attitude, and mentality that you need in qualifying to get to the World Cup. For us to go to tournaments and instill with a new group, with a lot of new players a winner's mentality in how we go about doing our business. It's important."
The US has been drawn into a group with Mexico, the Vancouver Whitecaps, and Eintracht Frankfurt. They will play their first game of the tournament against arch-rival Mexico on Sunday night at Pizza Hut Park.
With only the top team in the group advancing to the semifinals, Rongen feels the first game will be extremely important.
"You focus on your first game, first and foremost, which you do in a tournament format," Rongen analyzed. "The pressure of having to win the group to advance, that's really how you find out about players."
Rongen also feels that this tournament will give him a chance to find out about the character and mentality of the new group of players with whom he is still trying to get familiar.
"Technically and tactically, we have a pretty good understanding of most players," Rongen discussed. "But at the end of the day, there are a lot of players that you're not familiar with and you're trying to find out what the character makeup is and how to deal with adversity and how good of a teammate are they.
"Are they willing to extend themselves? And all the small things that make the group dynamic pros so important. These are great tournaments for us to find out, eventually, what our best 20 man roster is to go into qualifying in January of next year."
The team that Rongen is bringing to Dallas is full of many players who have yet to play for the U20 program and Rongen is anxious to see if they can be part of his plans moving forward as the club builds towards World Cup qualifying early next year.
"We're looking at some new players," Rongen said of the Dallas Cup team. "We're looking at some players we're familiar with, that we feel will be players that will be part of our team going forward, will be part of our qualifying roster. We have some familiar names and we sprinkled in some new players. We're excited about this group.
"It's all about finding some new players that enhance the quality of this group and trying to achieve some goals and turning the setting, which is not always easy when you don't have consistently your best group of players there."
This roster for the Dallas Cup contains many new players primarily because of conflicts many players had with the clubs. Rongen initially sought the release of Greg Garza, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Hoyos, Jack McInerney, and Gale Agbossoumonde however none of whom were released by their clubs.
"That always continues to be [a problem] very similar to our senior team," Rongen admitted. "We're dealing now with a lot of players abroad, be it Greg Garza at Sporting Lisbon, be it Gale [Abossoumonde] at Braga – two players that weren't released by their clubs; be it some other players in Europe that had a tough time getting released.
"You also have Sebastian Lletget, who we haven't been able to bring in for this Dallas Cup, but I think he will do very well for West Ham. "
While getting players released is an ongoing problem for Rongen in trying to build his team, he looks forward to seeing these players when the team assembles in Europe this spring and this summer.
"We're dealing with that as best as we can obviously and still trying to improve those players when have some trips to Europe in May and July," Rongen said of getting his European players together. "Hopefully those are times that we can incorporate some of the players that we haven't had with the team. We try to see them again because it's so important to have a core group of players together as often as we can; and that's just very hard in this age group to do."
In Rongen's two previous chances to observe the U20 players this cycle, he admitted that the team is still early in the process but he is encouraged to see that many of the players are in professional environments.
"It's still a work in progress," Rongen said of his initial reaction to the current group. "I think this group over time, players will emerge. Not necessarily with us, because we are not together frequently enough to further their day-to-day developments; but the interesting part of this age group now is that we have a lot of players in professional environments.
"Any times players in professional environments get first-team time, being in the U.S. or being in Europe, that's obviously a plus; and it will set those players apart from the rest of the group."
One of the challenges this group will have is that many of the players are either currently in their off season or are just preparing to start their season. With that being the case, match fitness will certainly be an obstacle for the US team.
"The continuation of integrating college players that are currently in the offseason but they just started their spring season," Rongen said of his Dallas Cup team. "It will be interesting to see where we're at from a fitness standpoint. So there are a lot of hurdles and obstacles to overcome."
"This group right now doesn't have any standout players at this particular time," Rongen continued. "But I think as the year goes on, and European season winds down and the MLS obviously will start within a week. I think those players in their [team] environments will make a case for themselves by getting minutes and particular first team minutes as much as possible."
Rongen, 53, is coaching his fourth U20 cycle for the United States. The Amsterdam native has led his US U20 teams to the quarterfinals of the 2001 and 2007 World Cups but his 2009 team last year failed to advance out group play. From what Rongen has seen from this current team has him optimistic for next year.
"No, it has changed. It changes from group to group," Rongen said of the current team when compared to the previous teams he coached. "When I was involved almost a decade ago there were not many professionals at this age level. If you look at 2007, they were 80 or 85 percent professional players. Then after, you drop again to 60/40 in favor of college players.
"It's been an interesting past four years, quite frankly. I think the makeup of this team will again be pretty interesting, and maybe the main thing for this particular cycle is that we will have quite a few players who play their trades abroad, which is a good thing."
Rongen and the US team will arrive in Dallas on Thursday night and the team's first practice will be on Friday. With the first game on Sunday night, Rongen will not have a lot of time to work with this team.
He wishes he had more time with his U20 camps in general but the tournament atmosphere will hopefully bring out the best in his team and serve as a key indicator as to which players are ready to contribute
"So we don't have a lot of preparation time toward this tournament. We would love to be together two, three, four weeks at the time, every month but college and the professional commitments make it hard for this cycle to get players for longer periods of time.
"And I have to make some hard decisions sometimes in one or two camps to evaluate players; so that's why tournaments like this, real tournaments, real games, under pressure, is always the best way to look at players and see if they fit this team," he concluded.