U-20 USWNT: Where Do They Go From Here?

The United States Under-20 Women’s National Team returned from Panama on Monday, Champions of CONCACAF, but their journey to Japan and the 2012 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup has only just begun. That tournament begins five months from now, and in the intervening months ahead, the U-20 USWNT will come together for camps, scrimmages, and test matches before departing for Japan. Based on the team’s performance in Panama, the squad has several key areas where they need to work on.

Also, It is very likely that not all the players who earned a gold medal in Panama will make the U-20 WWC roster. Besides current roster players not being available due to possibly getting injured, there are also other players currently recovering from their injuries, who could get a roster spot.

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TRAINING SCHEDULE

Edit/Update: Thanks to @thefinalpass for pointing out a recent GoDuke.com interview with Mollie Pathman where she discusses the U-20 WNT’s upcoming schedule. Pathman mentions only having “two camps until school ends,” a trip to Japan (where the team will likely play 2 or 3 friendlies), a three-week domestic residency camp in July, and then the team will leave for Japan around August 7th.

What We Know About 2012 So Far:

  • January: Training camp (two scrimmages against Chinese club team)
  • February: La Manga Four-Nations Tournament (played against U-20 cohorts)
  • March: CONCACAF Championship
  • April: Training camp (sometime in the middle of the month)
  • May: Training camp (not sure of the timing)*
  • June: Trip to Japan (will probably play 2 or 3 friendlies)* — Also the U-20 WWC draw (where the teams will learn their group stage opponents) is scheduled for sometime during the first three days of June (June 1-3, per FIFA’s calendar).
  • July: Three-week domestic residency*
  • August: Leave for Japan around August 7th.* U-20 WWC begins on August 19th.

There will probably be at least one one-week training camp per month until August, when the team leaves for Japan. Some of these camps will likely feature scrimmages against other US women’s youth national teams (e.g. U-18 and/or U-23), as well as club or college teams. In later camps, the team should play tune-up test matches versus other U-20 teams.

Hopefully, the team will be able to schedule scrimmages and friendlies against quality, full-powered opponents who can test this team so the Swanson and his staff can identify areas that need to be improved on or at least managed. (Two of the USA’s opponents at La Manga were not at full strength: Switzerland and Germany both had players who either had league commitments or were out with injuries. At the CONCACAF Championship, Canada was the only team that really challenged the United States. And, some of that challenge was self-inflicted by the USA.)

Edit: The following is much less relevant now, given Pathman’s interview, which is why I have moved it to the end of this section. Although, it is still useful for comparing the current cycle to to the previous cycles.

The previous two U-20 cycles give us some idea of how the schedule will shape up, but not perfectly, as the CONCACAF Championships were played at very different times (January, in 2010; June, in 2008) and the 2008 U-20 WWC was much later (started in late November).

2010:

  • January: CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championship, in Guatemala
  • February: La Manga U-23 tournament (USA brought their U-20s, so did Germany)
  • March: Training camp in Florida, played against University of Florida, Boston Breakers, and Atlanta Beat.
  • April: Training camp (mid-April), split-squad scrimmages against U-18 USWNT and a club team
  • May: Training camp in California, played New Zealand’s and Mexico’s U-20 WNTs, each twice.
  • June: Overseas training camp (in Germany), matches against Japan’s and Germany’s U-20 WNTs. The team returned to the USA and had about two weeks offs before a…
  • July: Short domestic training camp (3 days) prior to leaving for Germany on July 7th. U-20 WWC started on July 13th.

2008:

  • June: CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championship
  • July/August: Training camp from July 23-28 where they played then W-League New Jersey Sky Blue. The squad then flew to England, where they played three English teams (Everton Ladies, Arsenal Ladies, Chelsea Ladies.)
  • September: Training camp in Florida, 21st to 28th.
  • October: Training camp, Oct 19th to 25th (Home Depot Center, Portland Oregon). Two friendlies against Canada’s U-20 WNT.
  • November: Flew into Chile on the 15th. First match on the 19th.

Note: In February, the U-20 team played 3 other U-20 teams down in Chile. Then, in March, they played against senior women’s teams in the Cyprus Cup. The team also  had a training camp in May, and then a high-altitude training camp in June, right before the CONCACAF championship.

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NOTES ON THE CONCACAF CHAMPIONSHIP PLAYERS

See also: Table of Tournament Playing Time, In-Depth Analysis of the Final

Bryane Heaberlin (goalkeeper): Only gave up the one goal (versus Canada). Strong, fairly accurate kicks. Seems to have good offensive vision. Still the team’s #1 ‘keeper.

Abby Smith (goalkeeper): Performed well in her one tournament match, although she was not really tested. Has a strong lock on a U-20 WWC roster spot.

Crystal Dunn (outside-back): Although she had the one errant pass which led to Canada’s goal, Dunn was overall, very strong both offensively (3 assists) and defensively via intercept passes and one-on-one defending. Likely has a lock on the right outside-back position.

Cari Roccaro (center-back): Started 3 matches during the tournament. Was not really tested. Did score a goal. Has a 1994 birthday, so could be a returnee in two years. At the start of the tournament, Roccaro appeared to be one of Swanson’s two preferred center-backs, but that is an open question, now. Will likely make the U-20 WWC roster.

Kassey Kallman (center-back): Played all minutes during the tournament. Confident passer, although an errant header in the USA’s half almost led to a second Canada goal. Has a virtual lock on her center-back position.

Olivia Brannon (center-back/outside-back): Played outside-back versus Panama as well as center-back versus Cuba and Canada (also, briefly played outside-back in the Canada match when the USA qas in a 3-3-4). Not the most offensive-oriented center-back. A likely lock on a U-20 WWC roster spot. May be a starting center-back, or could continue to split time with Roccaro.

Molly Pathman (outside-back): Is a relatively rare left-footed left-fullback. Had one assist during the tournament. Involved in passing the ball as well as moving the offense up the field via dribbling runs up her flank. Takes the USA’s corner kicks from the right side, which could be an issue if the other team clears the ball and has a fast counter-attack. Probably the slowest player on the USA’s backline. Had a handful of wasted crosses into the box against Canada. Is the team’s captain. Has a likely lock on the left outside-back position.

Stephanie Amack (outside-back): The youngest player on the squad. Only played in one match, in order to rest Pathman. Performed well in her one appearance, but may be too raw. Is not a lock for the U-20 WWC roster, especially if Arin Gilliland is healthy and match-fit.

Samantha Mewis (holding midfielder): One of the most internationally experienced players on the squad and is probably the tallest player as well (5’11”). Had a goal and an assist versus Panama. When an opposing team bunkers down in their own half, she tends to have plenty of time and space to hold and pass the ball. Given her on-field position, is probably the player who most needs to reduce the amount of time she keeps the ball. Has a near-virtual lock on a U-20 WWC roster spot, and is the leading candidate for the starting holding midfield spot.

Sarah Killion (holding midfielder): Was only one of two players on the roster to not play a full match. May have picked up a slight injury before the tournament (unconfirmed speculation). Did  not make much of an impact when on the field. At this time, is not a lock for a U-20 WWC roster.

Morgan Brian  (attacking midfielder): Involved all over the midfield as well as in the attacking third. Scored one goal, which was directly off a dangerous free kick. Needs to work on her shot decision-making. A virtual lock on a U-20 WWC roster spot as well as a starting XI spot.

Julie Johnston (attacking midfielder): Had a goal in each of the matches that she started. Did not play in the final versus Canada, which was likely due to Swanson wanting fresher legs on the field. Has a virtual lock on a U-20 WWC roster spot , but less so on a starting XI slot.

Vanessa DiBernardo (attacking midfielder): Had two opportunistic goals in the tournament, which were both exploitations of clearances by the other team. Has a solid long corner kick delivery. Like Johnston, who is probably her main rival for a starting spot, DiBernardo has a virtual lock on a U-20 WWC roster spot, but is not a lock for a spot among the starting XI.

Mandy Laddish (midfielder): One of two players on the roster to not play a full match. Has a good long corner kick delivery. Seems to be primarily a substitute. Did play in the 2008 U-17 WWC. Will likely make the U-20 WWC roster.

Katie Stengel (forward): Had three goals during the tournament (all during group play). Seems to be Swanson’s preferred center forward, although she has been subbed-out relatively early three times (twice at half-time, once at the 57′ mark). Is at her best when dribbling hard into the box, pulling defenders toward her, and then passing to an open teammate. Has a likely lock on the starting center forward position.

Maya Hayes (forward): Had a team leading five goals during the tournament (via two braces plus the equalizer in the Canada match). Is a veteran of the 2010 U-20 WWC. Is a virtual lock for a U-20 WWC roster spot, but not necessarily as a starter.

Kealia Ohai (forward): Had the two key assists in the final versus Canada, where she came on as a late substitute. Had one goal, late, versus Mexico, but up to that had a rather quiet tournament. Is likely a lock on a U-20 WWC roster spot, but less so on a starting slot.

Chioma Ubogagu (forward): Scored the game-winner versus Canada and had another goal versus Cuba. Is speedy and energetic, but needs to be more aware of other teammates in scoring positions. Has a likely lock on a U-20 WWC roster spot , but will most likely be used primarily as a a substitute.

Lindsey Horan (forward): Had a hat trick versus Guatemala, but was quiet the rest of the tournament, except for an insurance goal against Mexico. Finishing was lacking in the later matches. Needs to be much more aware of other teammates prior to taking shots. Has a 1994 birthday, so could be a returnee in two years. Will probably make the U-20 WWC roster, but may not be a starter, especially if Kelly Cobb is healthy and match-fit.

Micaela Capelle (forward): Only saw playing time in one match and was mainly used to rest a starting forward. But, did have a goal and an assist in that match. Seems to be rated the least by Swanson, based on playing time in this tournament and the La Manga tournament. Is probably the least likely player on the current roster to make the U-20 WWC, assuming that Kelly Cobb is healthy and at least partially match-fit by August.

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POSSIBLE PERSONNEL CHANGES FOR THE U-20 WWC

Players Returning From Injuries

At least two notable players have not been available for the U-20 WNT due to injury: 5’9″ forward Kelly Cobb (Duke) and 5’8″ outside-back/forward Arin Gilliland (Kentucky). Cobb had surgery on her ankle in January, and should be 100% this summer, but a more specific timeframe is not yet available. Gilliland was injured in Kentucky’s only SEC tournament match (subbed-out in 13th minute) and did not play in Kentucky’s NCAA tournament match (box score). She had surgery in mid-November (Twitter update) and will not be able to play until at least next month (April), based on a Twitter update in November.

Cobb was a regular at U-20 camps in 2011 and traveled with the team to the La Manga tournament, where she had a goal and an assist against Norway’s U-20 WNT. In a June 2011 scrimmage against Japan’s U-20 WNT, Cobb also scored. In her freshman season for Duke, Cobb tied for most goals (11) and was second in assists (9). Only fellow forward Mollie Pathman had more assists (11). (Duke 2011 statistics.) Also, in 2009, as part of U-18 WNT scrimmages versus San Diego club squads, Cobb scored 4 goals in one match and scored a brace in another. (In that second match, Kealia Ohai, had a brace as well.)  See also: 2009 USSoccer.com feature on Cobb.

If Cobb makes the team, she will most likely replace Portland’s Micaela Capelle, who had a goal and an assist in her only match at the just-concluded CONCACAF Championship.

Gilliland is primarily an outside-back at the national team level, but has played both forward and (left) outside-back for her collegiate team, Kentucky. Gilliland was a regular at all U-20 camps in 2011, and played in the La Manga tournament. For Kentucky, she had four goals in her freshman debut, with two of those being game-winners. (Kentucky 2011 statistics.) Like Julie Johnston, Gilliland probably would have had more goals had she not been played on the backline for some matches.

Gilliland would likely replace 17 year-old Stephanie Amack, who just missed 2012 U-17 eligibility by nine days (23-Dec-1994 birthday). Amack was the only U-18 camp attendee picked for the U-20’s La Manga roster and its CONCACAF Championship roster. In Panama, Amack started the final group match at left outside-back most likely in order to rest Mollie Pathman.

The Third Goalkeeper

Teams at the U-20 WWC are allowed to roster 21 players. Three of those players must be goalkeepers (section 23.2 of the regulations pamphlet, PDF). Bryane Heaberlin and Abby Smith will likely take the first two ‘keeper spots, leaving the third spot open for another player to fill.

For the third spot, Swanson could go in one of two main directions: He could choose a ‘keeper based primarily on (1) performance on-the-field or (2) who is the best training partner for the first two goalkeepers.

Option #2 is available due to the fact that the third goalkeeper is essentially the back-up to the back-up and would realistically only see action if the first goalkeeper was unavailable (due either to injury/illness, accumulated yellow cards, or a red card) and the primary back-up goalkeeper was injured or ejected during a match. Thus, the third goalkeeper’s main role before and during the tournament is as a practice partner for the other ‘keepers. (Comparatively, the back-up goalkeeper has two dual roles: as the primary back-up, and as training partner. These roles can vary based on the differences in abilities among the goalkeepers, as well as based on other factors.)

Current U-20 Pool Goalkeepers: Besides Heaberlin and Smith, two other goalkeepers were called into the January U-20 camp: Jami Kranich (Villanova) and Abby Steele (Oregon). A notable player not at that camp is Emily Oliver (Stanford), who has been in the USA’s youth national teams mix since at the U-14 ID camp level. Oliver had been a regular invitee to U-20 camps in 2011 — including ones in February, April,  and June, but not the last in July — and played in the 2011 La Manga tournament. (Abby Smith was the other goalkeeper at La Manga. Bryane Heaberlin would have been rostered, but was injured.) Oliver also participated in a special U-23 camp back in October.

Younger Players: Another option is for Swanson to bring in a younger player, from the current U-18 pool (2014 U-20 players). In January, Swanson got to see three U-18 goalkeepers firsthand at a U-18 camp that ran concurrent with the U-20 camp: Laura Glew (committed to George Mason), Katelyn Rowland (UCLA, freshman), and Andi Tostanoski (committed to Santa Clara). And, if the U-17 squad would somehow fail to qualify for the 2012 U-17 WWC, then bringing in a player such as Jane Campbell (verbally committed to Stanford, 2013) becomes a possibility.

Previously Cut Players

Nine field players from the camp in January did not make the cut for the CONCACAF Championship: defenders Kori Chapic (Penn State), Abby Dahlkemper (UCLA), Jaelene Hinkle (Texas Tech), Casey Morrison (Boston College); Midfielders Kaysie Clark (Missouri), Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick (Cal/UC-Berkeley); and forwards Sophia Huerta (Santa Clara), Stephanie McCaffrey (Boston College), and Kate Schwindel (West Virginia).

These plus other U-20 and U-18 players could make the U-20 WWC roster either by stepping up and impressing Swanson and/or due to spots being open because of preferred roster players acquiring injuries.

U-17 Players: Eligibility Issue (If the USA Qualifies for the U-17 WWC)

Players who have participated in a U-20 WWC are not eligible for the U-17 WWC (section 22.3 of the of the regulations pamphlet, PDF). The 2012 U-17 WWC (September 22nd to October 13th) is after this year’s U-20 WWC (August 19th to September 8th), so due to the rule and schedule, a U-17 age-eligible player can only compete in one of the tournaments. Practically speaking, given the depth of talent the USA has at the youth age levels, this rule will not come into play, but it is a noteworthy constraint. (And much more of an issue for nations with small talent pools. For example, this year, Panama, which had had several U-17 players on its U-20 WNT, was in a position where it could have qualified for both the U-20 WWC and the U-17 WWC.)

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AREAS TO WORK ON

The following are a few key areas that need special attention, and are in addition to all the regular fundamentals.

Awareness of Other Teammates

U-20 USWNT players need to be much more aware of their teammates when in the attacking third, especially before taking shots on goal.

As noted in my analysis of the CONCACAF Championship final, there were at least a few instances where players took shots but had another teammate open who was either in a better position to score or could have been used to reset the offense. Teammate awareness was sometimes an issue while the team was passing the ball during offensive build-ups.

Shot Decision-Making and Finishing

The U-20 USWNT needs to be more patient in finding and creating scoring opportunities, especially against quality opponents. And, when the USA does have those scoring opportunities, the team needs to craft better shots in terms of placement, accuracy, and power.

In addition to shoot-or-pass decisions discussed above, over a third of the shots (at least 10 by my count) in the final were taken from outside Canada’s penalty box. Not all of those were bad shots, but this does illustrate impatience regarding scoring.

In regards to finishing, shot accuracy and placement were both poor in the final, as well as in at least some of the other matches of the Championship. In the two knock-out matches, the USA had 53 shots, but just 19 on goal.

Breakdown by match (from most recent to earliest match, stats are from USSoccer.com match reports):

  • Canada (final): 28 shots, 11 on-goal
  • Mexico (semifinal): 25 shots, 8 on-goal
  • Panama (group stage): 24 shots, 9 on-goal
  • Cuba (group stage): 15 shots, 9 on-goal
  • Guatemala(group stage): 17 shots, 10 on-goal

In the final, even when the USA did have shots on goal, most of the time, those shots were straight to Canada’s goalkeeper, Sabrina D’Angelo and were not strong efforts.

Corner Kicks and Set Piece Plays

The U-20 USWNT needs to develop a broad repertoire of set piece plays, namely corner kicks, but also free kicks.

As noted in my analysis of the CONCACAF Championship final, all but one of the USA’s 15 corner kicks were long crosses straight into the box, in front of goal. Such crosses may work against lesser and shorter opponents, but against quality opponents with quality goalkeepers, those corner kick plays are wasted opportunities.

The team should be able to develop scoring opportunities via corner kicks which are (1)  short of the penalty box, (2) sent to the the top of the penalty box, (3) sent beyond the far post, et cetera.

Concerning free kicks, the USA did score directly off a kick in front of goal against Mexico (who had their senior national team ‘keeper in goal), so that was a very positive moment for the team. But, otherwise, during the tournament, there were few opportunities to see how the team handled deep free kicks, as the team only had a handful of such kicks to attempt set plays with. And, outside the Canada and Mexico matches, was never in a position when it needed to take full advantage of those free kicks.

Getting Used to Crowd Noise

The U-20 USWNT should practice with simulated crowd noise in order to better play as a team under U-20 WWC conditions as well as to play better together, generally.

In the post-match interviews after the Panama match, crowd noise and not being able to hear other teammates was noted as an issue. Substantial crowds for matches at this age level are fairly uncommon, so for many players this was a new challenge.

At Germany 2010, one of the USA’s group matches was in front of a crowd of over 17,000 (versus Switzerland). However, a more average range of attendance for the USA’s U-20 WWC matches is between 5,000 and 10,000 (based on 2010 and 2008).

Option 1: Practices with simulated crowd noise via speakers. The Dallas Cowboys of the NFL have done this (even for a home game) , and so have collegiate gridiron football teams such as Kentucky. In addition to help acclimate players to tournament conditions, forcing players to not rely on verbal communications should improve their awareness of other teammates and opposing players as well as improve on-field chemistry.

Option 2: In addition to practicing with speakers, have the U-20 USWNT play a friendly in front of a live crowd at a real stadium. This does not have to be an MLS stadium, any inexpensive to rent yet nice collegiate or minor league facility will do. To bring in fans, admission should be free and the match should be held as part of a USWNT Olympics viewing party. E.g., the U-20 friendly will be played on the same day as a USWNT Olympics group stage match, with the friendly either starting two hours before the senior national team’s match, or fifteen minutes afterwards. Rights to show the USWNT Olympics match would have to be negotiated, most likely with NBC Universal, so that might be issue concerning the feasibility of the viewing party.

And, if there could be a live camera at the viewing party that is linked with NBC, who can show reaction shots after the senior USWNT (hopefully) score goals, then perhaps the U-20 USWNT could get a mention as well, which would be awesome free publicity.