USA building for the future
As the fierce midday sun beats down in Kano, USA's base for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009, Stars and Stripes coach Wilmer Cabrera wisely takes refuge in the leafy garden of their hotel.
The Colombian could be excused for feeling the heat after his side's 2-1 defeat to Spain the day before. But as he tells FIFA.com he remains confident of leading the Americans into the knockout rounds, a confidence he is hoping to transmit to his players ahead their remaining engagements against Malawi and UAE.
Professional football and the culture of the game is growing in the States, though it's still not as deep-rooted as in most other countries around the world.
As he has shown since taking over the USA U-17 side in 2007, Cabrera likes nothing better than a good challenge. The head of US Soccer's full-time Residency Program at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, the former Cafetero international knows better than anyone what makes his young players tick.
"It was over ten years ago that the Federation had the excellent idea of getting young people involved in the game," he explains. "With that in mind they set up an academy where youngsters can take their regular classes and learn to play football too by training and playing every day. It's a great experience for them and gives them everything they need to face the challenges posed at competitions like this. Long term the aim is for them to form the foundations of the full national team."
As USA's recent record shows, the Academy has been a huge success. Since China 1985 the Stars and Stripes have been an ever-present at the FIFA U-17 World Cup finals, qualifying for the competition 13 times in a row.
"Leading players like Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley have all come through the Residency Program and now form an integral part of the national team," he says proudly. "We're delighted this work is paying off and I hope the players who are here at Nigeria 2009 can kick on and join them in the team in four or five years time."
Dedication neededTo help him achieve his objective Cabrera has the support of an extensive network of scouts whose task it is to discover young talents in the nation's affiliate and local leagues. Finding these unpolished gems is just the start of long and arduous process, however.
"Players have to really love their football to be able to put up with the grind of going to the Academy and training," continues Cabrera. "They are used to training twice a week with their clubs but here we work on the mental side of things to make them more competitive. We are psychologists, parents, counsellors, friends and coaches rolled into one. It's a big responsibility and a tough process, but a very beautiful one too, at what is a transitional time for the boys."
One of the Program's many success stories is Luis Gil. "I'm from California and when one of the scouts saw me playing for my team Los Pateadores he offered me a place at the Academy in Florida," explains the US No10. "I've spent the best years of my life there. We do everything together. We study and train together, just like brothers, and it's been a terrific experience."
For the players, getting to know their team-mates off the pitch is a big advantage on it. "I feel secure when I know I've got one of my friends playing beside me," says Jack McInerney, the scorer of his side's only goal against Spain. "I know how he plays, what he's thinking and the next move he's going to make."
"Professional football and the culture of the game is growing in the States, though it's still not as deep-rooted as in most other countries around the world," concludes the coach. "Initiatives like this are a very positive way of building up a core of players, though, and getting people to follow the game too."
If Cabrera's young hopefuls are to keep that development going, he needs all the dedication he has shown in America's Sunshine State to pay off in the sultry climes of Nigeria, starting with a win against Malawi on Thursday.