Coach of the USA youth side that introduced a 14-year-old Freddy Adu to the world and stormed to the quarter-finals of UAE 2003, former Ajax and LA Aztecs fullback Thomas Rongen is back in the saddle again and sees the potential for even greater things this time around close to home in Canada.
The Dutchman is reunited with Freddy Adu, who will be playing in his third FIFA U-20 World Cup when the US side kick off their campaign north of the border. Though still one of the youngest players in the squad, the Ghanaian-born sensation currently at MLS side Real Salt Lake, but constantly linked with big money moves overseas, is wearing the red, white and blue captain's armband proudly.
"He (Adu) has been to a lot of these things (U-20 World Cups)," Rongen told FIFA.com after seeing his side shipped into a tough Group D at the Official Draw in Toronto earlier in the month. "Although he's still one of the youngest guys in the team, he has a great deal of experience under him already and he is a born leader."
Rongen, who has coached with distinction at MLS outfits New England Revolution, DC United and with the US Olympic program, sees a huge difference in the squad he led out in the steamy confines of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in 2003 and the one getting set for a short trip to Canada this July.
"Back in UAE 2003 we were 12 college players and eight pros and we did very well," he said. "This time around we have probably 17 or 18 pros and two or three college guys, so we are just continuing to develop more players and get them into the pro ranks earlier. We even have four or five guys who are playing in Europe right now - in England, Germany and Holland. In this team, we have great youthful enthusiasm but also some really important experience at the high levels at home and overseas."
Among his Euro-based contingent will be Michael Bradley of Dutch side Heerenveen, who was recently given his first senior USA caps by head coach (and incidentally his father) Bob Bradley. Although his importance at his club side meant young Michael missed out on the USA's successful qualifying campaign for Canada 2007, he is bound to figure in the team for the finals alongside Johann Smith of Bolton, Preston Zimmerman of Hamburg and Neven Subotic of Mainz.
Among the domestic-based big guns in Rongen's squad are captain Adu, Daniel Szetela and Robbie Rogers of Columbus Crew, hulking 17-year-old striker Josmer 'Josie' Altidore of New York Red Bulls and the wildly talented David Arvizu of Chivas USA. Rongen even has the option of calling on one Andre Akpan - a brainy engineering student at Harvard University - who scored a hat-trick in his first-ever USA cap in a qualifying win over Haiti.
Loaded with talent, the coach sees the current crop of players as potentially the best USA U-20 team ever. "Competition is going to make this team better and it's healthy because it drives these players forward, and makes them perform at their best all the time," Rongen remarked. "Playing great games like the ones we have in the first round in Canada is going to make our team better and prepare our players for the next level - in the senior team and with the Olympic team."
Though most coaches would be a little nervous about going up against Brazil in the first round of a world finals, the Dutchman is savouring the opportunity to meet the fancied Seleção.
"Any time you can play Brazil you've got to be excited," he beamed enthusiastically. "I'm excited as a coach and I know the players are too. Brazil is a formidable opponent obviously. Poland is going to be a tough team too - they are organised and disciplined and apparently they have the second coming of Boniek in this new striker Dawid Janczyk. South Korea, we seem to meet them a lot, and the Asian teams are very good and can not be taken lightly."
At their 11th U-20 world finals, the USA will be hoping to beat their best-ever finish of fourth place at Saudi Arabia 1989 , when, led by Kasey Keller and Mike Burns, they roared to the semi-finals only to lose out in extra-time to Nigeria. And with experience and youth being served in the squad and an old hand holding the reins on the touchline, this could just be the year for the USA.
"We have a very interesting mix of players," the boss concluded. "I have some tough choices to make now, but competition in the squad is the kind of problem you want as a coach."