Coach hails young Americans
© Foto-net

Four years ago, U-20 first-timers Thomas Rongen and a then 14-year-old Freddy Adu came literally seconds away from edging a star-studded Argentina for a spot in the semi-final of UAE 2003. Now, both are back in the last eight again - Rongen as veteran coach and Adu as 17-year-old captain and creator. spoke exclusively to Dutch-born former Ajax man Rongen to find out the secret behind American success so far, the team's style and grit and his hopes of going one step further here in Canada ahead of a tough test with Austria in Toronto. When we spoke at the official draw for Canada 2007 you called this USA team one of the best you've ever coached. So that wasn't just the bravado of a proud boss then?
Thomas Rongen: (laughs) I've always had faith in this team, but you can never predict what's going to happen once the finals roll around. After a year and a half of preparations and going through qualifying and playing together as a team, I knew we had a very good side. Every team comes to a World Cup thinking they can advance at least the second round. We came here thinking that way, and we did just that.

Not only did you reach the second round, but you did it with some style and attacking force as well beating Poland 6-1 and Brazil 2-1...
It's true, if you look at are goals ratio, you'll see we've been scoring a lot and conceding relatively few, so that's always a good thing. Coming in I knew we had a team that could score goals and I wasn't really very worried about the attacking side of things.

And defensively...
Well, that's an interesting thing. I've discovered that we're a little stronger at the back than I had suspected before the tournament started. We have a really nice balance in the side and a willingness from all players to buy into the team-defending concept. You can see that even our creative, technical players like Adu are tackling back and doing their part in the team defending. This has been key for us. Some of our individual performances have been great, but as a team we have really blossomed into something special here in Canada.

In that regard, you must have been pleased with the gutsy performance and come-from-behind win in the Round of 16 against Uruguay...
Yeah, of course. I knew that tactically and technically we were exactly where we needed to be and physically American players can always impose themselves, but I just didn't know if, emotionally, we were going to be able to get out of such a tough situation... and the players showed they have it where it counts. We gutted it out against a wily opponent and we showed a lot of character. That character is the last ingredient you need in a team that is facing a possible place in the last four.

You and Adu have both been in this position before. In UAE 2003's quarter-final with Argentina where you lost a heart breaker in extra time after conceding a Javier Mascherano equaliser four minutes into stoppage time. Is this something you're looking to set right here in Canada, and did that loss teach some important lessons?
It's funny; Freddy (Adu) and I just talked about that game and spoke to the whole team about the situation and how tough it is. UAE 2003 was my first time at a U-20 World Cup and I learned from it. Back then, we were a little too happy to have made it to the quarter-finals - the last eight of a World Cup. We were little too satisfied with the achievement. But I told these boys here and now that they are good enough to farther, and that we owe it to ourselves to not get too comfortable with the achievements we've made so far.

Are there any nerves in the team, being this close to a semi-final?
No, we don't really look at it like that. Every game needs to be prepared for in the same way. You have to focus on the opponent and make sure you don't get caught looking too far ahead. Austria are going to be a tough opponent.

Speaking of Austria, what are you expecting from them?
The Austrians are big, solid and extremely well organised. They may not have been a huge name coming in but they are always a team to be worried about. They drew Congo, who are very good, drew Chile who are even better, beat the hosts and then beat Gambia...we will need to be ready to go and expect a game even tougher and tighter than the one against Uruguay. We know it will be another nail-biter. They haven't scored a lot of goals, but they haven't conceded a lot either. In their last game, they brought their top scorer (Erwin Hoffer) in off the bench and he got the winning goal... now how's that for depth?

Not too long ago American teams were playing the ball over the top and employing some naïve tactics, but your team is turning heads with their style and short passing here in Canada. What's changed?
Well, we're in a result-oriented business here and I know that. But I could not be more pleased that I've been getting calls from peers and colleagues in the USA and my home country of Holland telling me 'this is one of the best American sides we've ever seen from a technical and tactical standpoint.' For me, this is the most important thing. It's important as a young football nation like ours to play some attractive, attacking football. At the end of the day, the way you play may be more important than all the results you're getting at youth level. We're making tremendous strides and people are talking about some good, pretty football coming out of the States, and you don't hear that too often.