USA head to Nigeria later this month keeping alive a proud tradition as the only nation to have qualified for all 12 instalments of the FIFA U-17 World Cup. However, current coach Wilmer Cabrera - a 48-times capped defender with Colombia - is hoping this time his young stars and stripes can make a big splash on the global stage.
"It's very good that we are making progress in the US at youth level and developing good players for the future," the coach told FIFA.com in a recent interview. "But now is the time when we need to make the step up and not be content with just reaching the World Cup, but being more competitive once we're there."
The furthest any USA U-17 team has gone at the junior world finals was the last-four stage, achieved back in 1999 in New Zealand when current senior stars Landon Donovan and Oguchi Onyewu were in the squad. Although Cabrera is putting a little good-natured pressure on his boys, who strolled through their qualifying group in Tijuana, Mexico, his approach is that of teacher and mentor more so than stern taskmaster.
"At this age you have to be patient, you have to put yourself in their shoes, remember what it was like to be that age," said the coach, a former standout with America de Cali, Independiente and Millonarios who relocated from his native Colombia at the tail-end of his playing days. "They are still kids, a lot of them. Some have big bodies and look like men, but their minds are still young and impressionable."
If anyone is equipped to put himself in the shoes of these talented young charges it is Cabrera. Aside from playing in the senior FIFA World Cup™ in 1990 and 1998, the coach - a four-time veteran of the Copa America - also twice took part in a FIFA world finals as a wide-eyed teenager. "I went to two Youth World Cups with Colombia in the 1980s," said Cabrera, who played alongside Rene Higuita at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1985 in the USSR and then again at the 1987 edition in Chile. "This is how I get into their shoes. I remember the feelings I had back then both on and off the field. I can reflect on that experience and use it."
Cabrera, who oversees the USA U-17 residency camp in Bradenton, Florida, which he calls "the best soccer school in the entire country," has some fine talent at his disposal as he sets his sights on Nigeria 2009. Jack McInerny and Sebastian Lletget will likely lead the lines as the USA face a mixed bag of opposition in a tricky-looking Group E. "It's virtually impossible for us to see Malawi play," the coach admitted, before adding that the young Americans recently faced off with African opposition, Gambia, in a friendly. "But while our knowledge of Malawi and UAE is limited, we do know that Spain are always extremely good at this age level."
In Spain, Cabrera sees a shining example of how to grow soccer at youth level in the USA. "Spain has as structure in place and has for a long time," he said. "We are trying to follow their example and aiming to make things more professional in the States, and linking that in with Major League Soccer. We need to keep up the work, but we are improving all the time."
The USA team are fresh off a trip to England where, in addition to a spate of useful friendly games, the youngsters got the chance to mingle with some of stars of the professional firmament. "We had the chance to train at Stamford Bridge (Chelsea's home ground) in London and some of the players met Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack and watched a Chelsea game in the Premier League. It was exciting for the boys, and it is always important for them to see the top level of football in the world. I always try to show them, so they know the future is closer than they think. It can inspire them."