Two years ago, USA missed out on the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Costa Rica 2014 by the slimmest of margins. Losing a penalty shootout against Mexico in the semi-finals of the CONCACAF U-17 Women’s Championship following a hard-fought 1-1 draw left the Americans in an unaccustomed position: forced to watch the tournament from home.
There was to be no repeat of that shock this time around, with the Stars and Stripes making comparatively light work of the regional qualifying competition to book their place at Jordan 2016 in impressive style. And as coach B.J. Snow told FIFA.com during a recent mid-summer training camp, he believes his side are ready for any challenges they may face in the Middle East.
“Right now it’s a fine line between getting our players a chance to rest both mentally and physically and make sure we’re keeping them in an environment that’s conducive towards building our team for Jordan,” Snow explained, discussing the taxing effects of a nationwide tournament many of his players had just competed in prior to reporting for training. “It’s an exciting time. I couldn’t be happier with where the players are right now.”
Instead of looking back at Costa Rica 2014 as a missed opportunity, Snow – who has been in charge of USA’s U-17s since January of 2013 – decided to draw positives on the aftermath of missing out on the tournament.
“We had a very, very strong team back in 2013,” Snow said. “We lost in a penalty shoot-out to get to . But we also proved we could compete with the best teams in the world by beating the world champions (Japan) just a couple of months later.
“That team was a really talented group that has shown to be special as they make up a majority of the U-20 national team now and have players like Mal Pugh who have gone on to play with the full team. So, it’s important to be critical of moments (like Costa Rica 2014), but not hyper-critical, as you evaluate the process instead of just being focused on the results.
“I think the difference between that cycle and this cycle is we had five months of preparation (before 2013), whereas this cycle we’ve had two years of preparation.”
Ashley Sanchez is one of the players Snow mentioned who is earning experience at the higher age levels, most notably with the U-20s under coach Michelle French. Sanchez put in a series of stellar performances to help USA qualify for Jordan 2016, picking up the Golden Ball and earning a place in the tournament's Best XI at the CONCACAF championship back in March. Having a player of Sanchez’s calibre, being constantly challenged by other players several years older than her, is all part of a longer-term recipe for success Snow and his colleagues at the U.S. Soccer Federation have strategically put together.
“It’s a bold statement that we’re giving a platform for our talented players to play up age groups,” Snow explained. “Mal’s proven that she can do it. Ashley’s proven that she can do it and be ultra-successful in that setting. We have seven players in our pool for the 17s who have been given experiences with older national teams including the U-20s and those players have to deal with completely different situations and problems they have to solve, which only accelerates their development.
“If can we put them in situations where they’re having success but they’re also struggling, then that’s the perfect mix. These players have shown that they can handle it and Ashley is a perfect example of that.”
Tips from Tarpley While having players like Sanchez help lead Snow’s side is critical to their success, the U-17 women’s coach has another ace up his sleeve. Snow’s wife is none other than former USA standout Lindsay Tarpley, and he is not afraid to take advantage of having a FIFA U-19 Women’s World Cup winner, two-time Olympic gold medalist and veteran of with well over 100 caps on speed dial.
“I think it would be utterly foolish if I didn’t utilise her!” Snow said with a laugh. “I lean on her heavily in regards to picking her brain about certain things. Being able to call on her to come talk to the team to give her experiences is great. Watching her go through everything she’s had to deal with, from the extraordinary successes to having a career-ending injury and all that goes into that, really has helped me grow as a coach.”
USA’s women have won every other FIFA competition except the U-17 World Cup. But with a side teeming with experience and talent rare for their age, combined with the added advantage of having an extremely successful spouse on hand to offer wise counsel, Snow is of bringing that last, elusive tournament back Stateside in October.
“Our goal is to find players that can help us win now and that are also players that we want to invest in for the long term. That’s a very difficult paradigm. So as long as we continue to measure that, we feel like we’re choosing players that are worthy of the opportunity to go to Jordan and win.”