Can we draw any conclusions from the USA’s failure to qualify for the U-17 Women’s World Cup? Or is the USA simply a victim of soccer’s cruelty? (We did say soccer karma doesn’t exist, except perhaps to see Real Salt Lake past Los Angeles last night.)
The statistics rounded up at Soccer America defy reason. In four qualification tournaments, the USA has outscored its opponents 103-3 and never lost a game. But the team has twice tied in knockout games, and each time, they’ve been eliminated on penalty kicks, yesterday by Mexico. So that’s two out of four U-17 Women’s World Cups that have taken place without the most accomplished country in women’s soccer.
“Maybe the U.S. women need a Developmental Academy like the men,” came one of the responses on Twitter last night. Perhaps. But things aren’t so good on the men’s side, either. The U.S. men’s U-17s lost in the CONCACAF quarterfinals to miss out on all four qualification spots. That’s the first time the U-17 men have missed out. The U-20s made it this year after missing out in 2011, which was the first time that had happened since 1995. The U-23s have failed to qualify for two of the last three Olympics, not even getting out of the group stage on home soil last time.
By comparison, the women have done well. The U-20s have won two of the last three World Cups.
On the whole, we have this strange paradox: As the country has grown more serious about herding its best youth players into elite national environments — the U-17 men’s Bradenton residency, the men’s Developmental Academy, the women’s Elite Clubs National League — the USA has fared worse in international youth tournaments.
Partially, sure. Other factors include the growth of soccer elsewhere. On the women’s side, the USA’s growth is helping other countries — as Soccer America pointed out, the Mexican goal scorer and goalkeeper who eliminated the USA yesterday both play for the ECNL’s Texas Rush.
We can’t draw too many conclusions on the women’s side. The U-20s are fine. The U-17s have just had curious failures in penalty kicks, which old-school coaches often call a “lottery.” Sure, perhaps the U-17s should never let a game with Mexico get to that stage, but it’ll happen sometimes. Ask the senior women about their last World Cup qualification.
The men’s side is more puzzling. The USA used to round up a bunch of high school and college kids for these tournaments. They got a couple of semifinal and quarterfinal appearances in World Cups and the Olympics. Then nothing beyond the round of 16 since 2007.
It’s still not enough evidence to suggest something is systematically wrong. A bounce of the ball here or there can be the difference between a semifinal World Cup run or failure to qualify at all.
But it’s enough to suggest there’s no easy answer. Bradenton, the Academy and the ECNL aren’t going to produce champions through the sheer fact of their existence. It’s going to take rare talents, coached with care.
Systems don’t win championships. Players do. Or they lose and get an experience that will hopefully prepare them for better futures.