U20's, MLS Development, Reserve Leagues and Time for Rongen to Go

If you didn't rearrange your life in order to watch the U20 World Cup final yesterday between Ghana and Brazil, you won't get a lot of fansnobbery smack from me.

We can certainly stipulate that, what with the sudden - and delightful - deluge of tasty soccerfootball events we've been favored with since last June 1st, if one or two of them can be allowed to fall by the wayside without putting your reputation as a True Aficionado de Footy in jeopardy, this would probably be one of them.

Which, in an odd way, is the point.

In case you have the game on your DVR and hope to view it at a later date without someone spilling the beans, fair warning: I don't give a crap.

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For the rest of you, Ghana won an uneven match where The Samba Boys created by far the better chances and blew them all spectacularly, but Ghana seemed, somehow or other in a way that's difficult to explain exactly, more or less in control of an uneven match that ended with a full set of ten PK's where as many shots were missed as were made.

(Note to coaches out there: apparently nobody - and I'm looking at YOU Brazil - is spending much time on PK's these days, so let's review rule #1: make up your mind what you're going to do and then do it; the keeper will almost never stop a well-placed kick, even if he guesses right, so ignore the guy and whack away. Rule #2 is to remember Rule #1.)

It seems almost sacrilegious to pull for Brazil's opponent, since we're all, everyone one of us, enamored with their skill and flair and joy in the game and every other country on Earth secretly (or not so secretly) wishes our guys played like that.

But to hell with that: I was rooting like mad for Ghana.

The reason is quite simply that Brazil wins enough stuff. Some of those same guys, after they recover from the trauma of dropping a shootout, which in Brazil is the social equivalent of taking a dump in Grandma's living room, will end up on a pitch someplace in 2014 or 2018 or 2022 (I'm betting on the Rose Bowl for that one) dancing with Jules Rimet. It's hard to gin up a lot of tears.

Ghana, on the other hand: anyone want to give me the odds on the Black Stars doing the mamba with that ugly trophy anytime in our lifetimes? Just not gonna happen. So let them have this one and good on them for it.

Which is also part of the point.

A couple of weeks ago, when the US 20's limped out of this same tournament - on goal differential, it should be noted - there was a good deal of the requisite gnashing of teeth and flagellating of self that goes with any USA team loss down to the U6 level (a joke? of course, but on the other hand if FIFA could find a way to make money off of the U-Littles World Cup, do you want to bet against them holding one? Really?).

But the fact of the matter is, of course, that U20 results don't mean much of anything. Or rather, they do mean something, that being Jack Squat.

I'll say up front that I'm not much of a Thomas Rongen fan, if in fact there is such a thing outside of the Old Boys Club that runs much of USSF. Thankfully, that same group didn't have a lot of success co-opting MLS, mightily as they did try back in the beginning, largely because in professional soccer you have to actually produce results rather than just be someone that everybody else enjoys drinking with.

Yes, Rongen did manage not to screw up The Arena/Payne creation in DC long enough to win a Cup, but if there's someone who believes that he did it on all his own I have a timeshare in the Urals I'd like to sell.

Going into the finals you had to believe that we were in trouble when Rongen was already making noises about how MLS was letting him down by not providing a Reserve League so that his boys had something a bit more in line with the kind of development work that the players they were going to be going up against had under their belts.

(I'm not going to get snarky about how the K-Leagues' reserve system must really be spectaculer, seeing as how the Young Koreans looked very good indeed - and certainly much better coached - in smacking his side around, although God knows I'd like to, but let's keep on track here.)

Rongens' remarks looked for all the world like preemptive damage control, and indeed his charges only managed to beat a pathetically disorganized looking Cameroon squad (had those guys ever even met before that morning? Dear Lord) in an otherwise dismal performance.

So of course afterwards Rongen made the exact same remarks about how this semi-embarrassing result was directly due to MLS' lack of a reserve league in which to "develop" young players, implying that had there been such a thing his players would have been the scourge of the tournament, up to and including it being the USA who got the chance to miss 3 of 5 PK's in the final game.

Or something.

I've never personally met Mr. Rongen, although I did attend a clinic he gave at an NSCAA convention once. Possibly because of the sound system or his Dutch accent I didn't exactly catch everything he said, but the gist of it was that having one of your players dribble the ball down into the corner and then cross it parallel to the end line into the head of a teammate in the box is a very good thing indeed.

I'm sure we all agree. Except in DC, where it's pretty much accepted that if Rongen said it, it's ipso facto imbecilic nonsense. And they've earned the right to feel that way.

That aside however, I beg to disagree with where he lays the blame for the ignominious exit of the US squad.

As Dan pointed out a week or so ago, the majority of the players the US took to the tournament are in college, not toiling away in Denver for the Rapids where the lack of a reserve side is tantamount to squandering their enormous talents.

A quick glance at the US roster from 2007 shows that out of 19 players rostered, fully 11 of them were either on MLS rosters or playing overseas: Arguez, Igwe, Sturgis, Bradley, Szetela, Rogers, McCarty, Adu, Altidore, Wallace and Ferrari.

Of the rest, a couple have made careers of turning down GenA offers (Sarkodie, Akpan) are keepers (Perk, Sandbo), were seniors who would enter MLS the next year (Beltran, Valentin) or were guys that nobody had ever heard of before (Zizzo, Zimmerman).

And while most of the MLS rostered players did indeed see Reserve Team minutes, most of them spent the majority of their time on the first team. These were by and large not struggling young guys trying to scratch and claw their way into the coaches radar screens. They were guys who were getting tossed out there and asked to perform with the big boys.

Conversely, of the 2009 side only five of them are on MLS teams and of those guys like Brek Shea and Jorge "Sueno" Flores and even Peri Marosevic (when healthy) regularly see first team minutes.

The balance is a mixed bag, including a High School kid from Togo, a keeper from the 2007 team who is STILL in college, a couple of guys from various other college programs, a guy who ought to be with NYRB but MLS refuses to allow it (Duka) and a Norwegian whose Mom happens to be from Arizona who has never kicked a ball in a US league at ANY level, and isn't ever likely to (Diskerud).

Which is a long way around saying: what the hell good would an MLS Reserve League have done to improve ANY of these players? It's hard to see any more than a couple of them ever taking the field on a Sunday morning in front of an empty stadium.

(A case can be made, I suppose, for the fact that the handful of guys who aren't on ANY team are at liberty because of MLS personnel l=policies and limitations, but that's an argument for another day)

Which brings me back to the anguish of the young Brazilians, who openly wept on the field yesterday and whose pain was as every bit as genuine as the Ghanaians pure, unadulterated joy.

The fact of the matter is though that most national federations use the 20's as a showcase for up and coming talent. Brazil for example used a team made up entirely of domestic players. If you don't think they could have brought in 18 U20 eligibles off of European rosters and crushed the life out of Ghana and everybody else, you're nuts.

Even the lowly US saw it this way, and kept guys like Adu and Altidore with thie clubs.

That's not to say that the results mean nothing to anybody.

Indeed, the 20's WC has traditionally been a place where late bloomers and under-the-radar guys can come into their own. For the USA, players like Zimmerman and Zizzo and even Benny Feilhaber are good examples.

The real problem that was exposed in the 2009 version of this tournament was not the excuse-seeking Rongen's complaints about MLS. In fact, if Rongen's remarks proved anything it's that it's time to replace the guy, who has clearly run out his string. The U20 programneeds some fresh thinking and Rongen needs to find honest work.

Rather, the thing that became apparent was that our talent pool in this age group this time around is fairly shallow. Happens to everybody. In 2007 we were loaded. Those guys were playing professionally because they were, you know, REALLY GOOD.

The current crop isn't, largely because they're not as stellar. Facts of life here.

As often happens when I begin writing on a topic like this someone comes along just when the need is greatest and provides invaluable insight. In this case Dave Dir's interview with THE 3RD DEGREE is well worth your time.

Although he disagrees with my asessment of the value of the reserve league to the 2007 team, he has some suggestions that I think merit discussion.

Andrea Canales, who I have been less than kind to on occasion, also had a very good piece on MLS' role in development recently. I can't find the link but I'll keep looking. It too is well worth your consideration.

As for the late lamented MLS Reserves, I can only point to the fact that in 2007, the year of the last U20 tournament, the Reserve League scoring champion was Kyle Brown, currently of the Austin Aztecs.

(Second was Yura Movsisyan, who was, frankly, going to do just fine without it. Third was grizzled old John Wolyniec, who was "developed" about a decade and six or seven MLS teams previously, possibly by wombats.)

I too would like to see a meaningful MLS Reserve system. I think everybody would. But lamenting the loss of the previous setup is silly: teams signing up local stray cats, assistant coaches, front office geeks and, in at least one case, the team's radio color guy, is of no value to anyone.

Particularly when what you end up "developing" is forwards for the Austin Aztecs.

If nothing else is currently possible, then what I'd personally like to see is various combinations of three or four regional teams - say LA, Chivas and Seattle, or New England, New York and DC, put together a combined team, each contribute a coach, set up shop in Pittsburgh or Tempe and play in USL1 or USL2.

Act like they're on real teams, with real standings that people care about. Reserve teams may feel like real live games, but there's nothing at stake. The only way you get that is in a REAL league where the results mean something.

Make them available for emergency callups, but limit the number: say three maybe, after which the parent club has to keep them up.

Sell some tickets and a couple sponsorships and it might even come close to breaking even.

And that's something even MLS can appreciate" development on the cheap.