Having completed the most extensive, intensive and expensive training an American soccer team so young has ever received, the Maryland-flavored, U.S. Under-17 men's squad flies to New Zealand today in quest of a world championship.
Coached by John Ellinger, a Frostburg State alumnus whose resume includes nine years as men's coach at UMBC, the American team features three Maryland starters.
They are midfielder Kyle Beckerman of Crofton and Arundel High; and defenders Alex Yi, an Easton resident who attended McDonogh, and Olney's Oguchi Onyewu, from Bullis Prep.
"I feel extremely comfortable in how the team is playing," Ellinger said during a telephone news conference from Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., yesterday. "The only [concern] is the opening game -- playing the host nation with 42,000 people watching."
Beckerman, described by the coach as "the emotional leader of this team," said: "There's pressure, but you just got to go do the job. We've trained hard enough, played enough games. I'm ready for it."
The Maryland contingent left home in January for Bradenton, Fla., Ellinger temporarily leaving Ellicott City to lead a "residential training program" that kept players in school mornings and on the famed Bollittieri Sports Academy's fields each afternoon. That is, when they weren't traveling.
And over the last two years, this squad has traveled lots, logging 200 days on the road and more than 70,000 air miles to 10 countries, including New Zealand, Argentina, El Salvador, Jamaica and six in Europe.
The squad has gone 53-15-18 and outscored opponents, 243-102. Against international competition, that record is 27-7-7.
As the final round of this biennial tournament has neared, Ellinger's team has gone on a 16-0-4 tear internationally, the longest unbeaten streak of any male U.S. national team.
Despite the flashy numbers, the FIFA World Youth Championship promises to be a daunting tournament. The United States is the only country to qualify for every tournament since 1985, but its best finish was fifth in 1991.
Overall, the Yanks have been 7-14-2 in tourney play. Even this team had to scramble into the finals, needing a two-game playoff sweep of El Salvador to earn the last berth from this world region.
It's accurate to say that the U.S. Soccer Federation is serious about winning this tournament, an important stepping-stone for some of the world's best-known pro stars.
Hitting the deep pockets of sponsors Nike and the IMG Marketing Group, the federation earmarked $1.5 million for this team, by far the most ever spent on the age group. The process began by identifying talented players who want to play socccer more than anything else.
The reason, said Jim Froslid, U.S. Soccer's national teams administrator, is the federation's objective of winning the 2010 WorldCup. "And this is the age group where that starts," he said. "In 2010, these players will be 26, at the peak of their abilities."
Three of the team's 18 players already have signed pro deals, one in Germany and two here; others are likely to follow, although several want to try college.
The three Maryland starters, a larger representation on the team than any other state except California, have figured prominently in the team's progress.
Beckerman, the team's play-maker, who says he wants to turn pro soon, has 18 goals and 16 assists in 38 games -- eight and two, respectively, in his last seven international matches. Five of those goals came against Paraguay and Mali, both New Zealand finalists.
Yi is one of only three players to start every U.S. international this year. Exceptionally strong in the air, he has two goals by headers.
And Onyewu, who won his starting job just this year, is the team's hardest tackler; he also scored three times in the critical qualifiers against El Salvador.