As the United States, led by well-travelled Dutch-born boss Thomas Rongen, prepare to head to Panama for FIFA U-20 World Cup qualifying, all eyes are on Freddy Adu. Although the current American squad has more professional players than at any time in the past, Adu still remains the highest-profile name on the team sheet.
Even after a failed recent trial at Manchester United and a move from powers DC United to upstart side Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer, Adu - still just 17 - is still one of the biggest names in American Soccer. Though still the third youngest in the US U-20 squad, the Ghanaian-born sensation - who was invited by the Black Stars to take part in this summer's FIFA World Cup in Germany - has become every inch the team's spiritual leader after three seasons as a full professional with DC United, with whom he won an MLS Cup in 2004. Also, his status as a veteran of two FIFA U-20 World Cups ( UAE 2003 and Netherlands 2005 ) as well as a U-17 world finals ( Finland 2003 ) will have team-mates looking to the teenager for guidance.
Named captain by Rongen - himself a former Ajax player and stand-out with the North American Soccer League outfits the LA Aztecs and Washington Diplomats - much is expected of young Freddy when the side head down to Panama on 17 January hoping to qualify for their sixth consecutive FIFA U-20 World Cup and tenth overall.
"He (Adu) has become our vocal leader and he also shows the way with the way he plays on the pitch and in training," said Rongen, who coached Adu and the American U-20 side to the quarter-finals at UAE 2003. "He is a unique player with a unique set of experiences and skills. He takes his job as captain very seriously and he is an important bridge from the coaching staff to the squad."
In addition to Adu, the side is brimming with top-class professional talent. Nathan Sturgis, Tim Ward, Josmer Altidore, Quavas Kirk and Danny Szetela all play their club football as full professionals in the US top flight.
From overseas, Rongen will be relying on Robbie Rogers of Dutch outfit Heerenveen, Johann Smith on the books at Bolton, and Preston Zimmerman of Hamburg to bolster the team.
This new influx of professionals into the U-20 fold - long dominated by University players - is something of a double-edged sword for Rongen. "The depth and quality of this team is well above previous cycles in the US," the coach remarked. "We are deeper in terms of quality and professional players to choose from, but that means we are also running into troubles getting players released."
Something gained, something lost
The biggest - and potentially costliest - problem Rongen and Co face will be the loss of Michael Bradley. The midfielder and son of current US senior men's head coach Bob Bradley , will not be released for the Panama qualifiers by Dutch Club Heervenveen.
Despite petitioning and fighting the good fight, Rongen will be without the youngster's services for the three crucial games in Central America. "It's a big loss," the coach said. "But we have enough quality to continue on and put in a good performance in the qualifiers."
First up for the USA in CONCACAF qualifying Group A will be a tough test against Caribbean powers Haiti on 17 January at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez, followed two days later by a meeting with Central American representatives Guatemala. Their last game will be a tricky one against hosts Panama on 21 January.
The top two teams will qualify automatically for Canada, with two more teams coming from a second group featuring Mexico, Costa Rica, St. Kitts and Nevis and Jamaica. Group B will run from 21 to 25 February 2007 in Mexico.
With a strong squad from which to whittle down an effective starting eleven, Rongen may well be spoiled for choice. But one thing is certain: each and every one of his charges is ready to bleed for the cause in hostile territory later this month.
"It means a lot to me to play for my country, it's a hard feeling to explain," explained Josmer 'Jozy' Altidore, who has just finished a stunning first season for the New York Red Bulls and been named US men's young soccer player for 2006. "We just need to stay focussed and get the job done down in Panama."
The best-ever finish for a US side at a FIFA U-20 World Championship came way back in 1989, when, led by Kasey Keller, they finished fourth in Saudi Arabia . The current team may well be the best yet, but Rongen will ensure that the more immediate, modest goals are targeted first when Haiti come calling on the 17th.