RISING STARS PART II
The Under-20 World Cup gets underway Thursday and the USA will play their first game on Saturday against Germany. In what should be a very telling tournament in terms of where many of America's talented teenagers stand, there are certain college players in particular that are worth following.
Ike Opara (Defender, Wake Forest)
One of the most scouted players on the USA team during the tournament will be Wake Forest's junior center back, Ike Opara. While, he missed the CONCACAF qualifying campaign for the World Cup due to injury, he has been an important part of this team as it has come together in 2008 and 2009.
"Every trip I have been on with the team, every single player that has stepped in has been a good teammate and come in with the right attitude," Opara told Yanks Abroad. "Our attitude, along with our collective team defense is probably the strength of this team"
Opara, 20, was named 2008 ACC Defender of the Year as a sophomore. This year as a junior he is considered one of the best players in college soccer. Born in Durham, North Carolina and the son of Nigerian immigrants, Opara will face important decisions later this year in whether or not to go professional and, if so, whether or not to go abroad.
The U20 World Cup tournament is always a tournament that has a significant number of scouts and it should go a long way to determine what options Opara will have.
"When the time comes to make a decision, I will not rule out anything in terms of where I want to play as I am looking to surround myself with several possibilities," Opara said. "Whether it be making a move to MLS or Europe, or going back to school to finish my degree."
Last December, Opara surprised many MLS fans when he announced he would not be entering the MLS draft. It was speculated that Opara would have been one of the top picks with a good chance at being the number one overall pick.
"It was one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make in my life."
The decision not to enter the MLS draft was seen by many as a way for Opara to play at the U20 World Cup as an unattached free agent thereby giving himself more options afterward.
"That played a factor in my decision certainly, but you have to be careful in how much you rely on one single tournament to determine your future." Opara said. "Though, you have seen some college guys make the leap straight to Europe just because of a good showing at this tournament."
"My professional aspirations are high; I want to play at the highest level when that time in my career is presented."
As for the USA's chances in Egypt, Opara is optimistic.
"My expectations for the team in Egypt are to go out there and have a good showing in front of the world at a prestigious tournament," the Demon Deacon said. "Obviously, the team and I want to go out there and win it all, but we want to show the world what we are capable of at this age group."
"We do have a tough group, but I feel that we have enough quality throughout the team to get the job done and advance to the knockout rounds."
Dillon Powers (Midfielder, Notre Dame)
One of the more surprising roster selections made by head coach Thomas Rongen was that of Dillon Powers. The 18-year old Powers is the second youngest player on the roster behind only Gale Agbossoumonde.
Powers emerged very late in the player pool and received his first invitation to a camp in June when the team traveled to Egypt to play a pair of friendlies against the U20 World Cup hosts.
"I was a little shocked when I got invited to the friendlies in Egypt in June," Powers said of hearing the news he was invited. "I had been playing pretty well for the Under-18 team but the idea that I would be called for the U20s seemed farfetched."
"I knew I had a good chance to make the squad after my play in Egypt and Argentina and talking to Coach Rongen, but making the final roster was a great feeling."
Powers, who is a native of Plano, Texas, is currently a freshman at Notre Dame after being named the Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player of the Year in 2008/09. Since joining the U20 team on a regular basis over the summer, Powers has been used by Rongen as primarily a defensive midfielder.
"In games, I have found a role as a more defensive midfielder that sits back and tries to play simple and connect passes. Defending has been a big part of my game on this team as well."
Having only played with the team since June, Powers has seen enough from his teammates and the team to like their chances at the World Cup.
"I expect the team to have a good showing at the World Cup," the Texan said. "It is a difficult group but we believe that will be able to get to the knockout round. Each trip Coach emphasizes the importance of putting yourself in a position to advance. I think that mentality has had quite an impact on us."
While one of the highest rated players in the country, Powers insists that he will not be thinking too much about the scouts and the professional opportunities that the World Cup can offer.
"The World Cup is possibly the best way to be seen by other clubs," Powers opined, "but right now I am just focused on our performance."
"As long as I am playing soccer I will be happy almost anywhere. I love the EPL, Serie A, as well as the Spanish league because at the moment those are at the highest level."
Prominent college players are still very important in the development of the senior national team. In the last round of World Cup qualifiers, 24 players were named by Coach Bob Bradley to the roster. Of those 24 players, 17 had NCAA experience.
The U20 World Cup in particular is when some of these college players begin to make this transition into the professional ranks. Opara and Powers will certainly be looking to join the numerous American players that have used this tournament to earn their first professional contract.