The upcoming world finals in Egypt will be experienced USA coach Thomas Rongen's third taste of the global youth extravaganza. And though his first order of business is to lead his young charges to glory at the finals, the experienced Dutchman always is just as focused on feeding the US senior national team with suitable candidates.
"We want to go and win in Egypt, that goes without saying," Rongen, who played for Ajax and NASL outfits LA Aztecs and Washington Diplomats, told FIFA.com. "But the real service of a U-20 team is pushing as many players through to the senior team as possible."
Rongen, who won an MLS title as coach of DC United and also sat in the technical area for Tampa Bay Mutiny, New England Revolution and Chivas USA, first took the American U-20s to a FIFA World Cup in 2003, where he came within seconds of booking a place in the semi-finals. In that team were the likes of current seniors Ricardo Clark, Freddy Adu, Clint Dempsey and Chad Marshall. "It's truly gratifying to see those guys that you taught and showed the ropes doing well at the top level. It's what the job is all about," the coach said.
Last time out, at Canada 2007, the Dutch-born coach brought the USA to the quarter-finals with a team made up of a stable of standouts like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, both of whom were integral members of the USA senior side that reached the final of this year's FIFA Confederations Cup. A teacher by trade, Rongen - who holds a masters degree in physical education - sees the USA's developmental and youth programs playing a critical role in the current upswing of the nation's football.
"This summer people have been paying attention to soccer in the US," said Rongen, who was with his team in Egypt while the Bob Bradley's senior side were making history at the Confederations Cup this past June. "If you look at the current crop of senior players who started in Bradenton (US Soccer's residency program in Florida), there's quite a few. Now youth clubs are connected to MLS clubs and there's a tremendous growth pattern. I think the sky's the limit."
The USA U-20 squad, who - led by Anthony Wallace, Bryan Arguez and goalkeeper Brian Perk - finished second behind Costa Rica in qualifying in Trinidad, will be comprised of a handful of full professional players from Major League Soccer, some overseas pros and a handful from the University game. This wide expanse of choice is something the coach didn't have even as recently as 2003. "The development of MLS has really helped over my years with the youth national team," the coach said. "It allows our younger players to hone their trade at a high level every day. Some go abroad to find their challenges now too, which is something that wasn't happening a few years back."
Rongen and Co, who had problems scoring in the qualifiers, are placed in a tough-looking Group C in Suez, and he knows full well the pitfalls ahead. "It's an interesting mix of teams that we'll meet," said the boss, who will take on Germany, Cameroon and Korea Republic in the group stage. "The Germans are European champions and will have some Bundesliga players, Cameroon are tough and talented and African teams are always good at this level. The Koreans will be organised and highly technical as well."
According to Rongen, the players are well aware of the soccer renaissance that seems to be taking over the USA at the moment. The FIFA Confederations Cup heroics were followed by a run to the CONCACAF Gold Cup by an experimental USA squad, and now Egypt 2009 is the logical next step. "We all watched the Confederations Cup together when we were in Egypt for some friendlies and even the Gold Cup (the USA were in Argentina at the time), and all of my players look up to these guys and hope to be where they are in a few years. My boys know what it means to wear the US jersey, and the pride it should inspire."