When the United States U-20s take the field against Colombia in Friday's opening match of the Torneo de las Americas in Kennesaw, Ga., head coach Thomas Rongen will be thankful for at least one thing: talent.
From Gale Agbossoumonde and Greg Garza manning the backline through Sebastian Lletget, Dillon Powers and Alex Molano in the midfield, and Juan Agudelo, Omar Salgado and Tristan Bowen battling for the striker positions, the U-20 manager can feel confident about his side's chances in the three-team round robin-tournament, which also includes Mexico.
Throw in missing stars such as Porto's Samir Badr, the Hertha Berlin duo Anthony Brooks and Jerome Kiesewetter, 1860 Munich's Bobby Wood, Santos Laguna's Adrian Ruelas and Germany's former U-17 captain Fabian Hürzeler, who recently pledged his allegiance to the US in addition to four or five soon-to-be pros still playing in the NCAA tournament, and it's clear the roster Rongen brings to April's CONCACAF championship in Guatemala will be one of the deepest ever.
A glance at the club situations of the U-20 team hints at the increasing ability level. Whereas the disappointing 2009 U-20 World Cup roster featured just 10 pros, the 2011 side will be composed almost entirely of professionals.
"Players have become way more proactive in those little things that could make a difference in a game," Rongen told MLSsoccer.com between training sessions on Wednesday. "I'm glad to see that players have become better pros at younger ages.
"I see it in small things. Yesterday, I walked into the training room after practice and there were four guys taking ice baths. The players are used to doing that on their club teams. Two cycles ago, players didn't realize that prevention of injury was so necessary since the modern game has become so demanding."
Rongen's charges need to continue to improve if they want to compete with the rest of the world.
"All these guys on Mexico and Colombia play in the first division every week," he said. "We're playing against men. Now in tight games, things like ice baths could make difference. You have to watch your training habits and your post-training habits."
While the U-20s are gaining experience in a professional environment, many of the MLSers in camp – Agudelo, Bowen, Amobi Okugo, Bryan de la Fuente, Cesar Zamora and Conor Shanosky – struggled to find time during the 2010 season. Rongen laments this fact and notes some players didn't improve as he'd hoped during the campaign. He is, however, encouraged by the return of the reserve league.
"You have to invest in the future," he said. "The more we start expanding, the more we have to be proactive to increase the talent level."
The American system, with a new focus on the academies, continues to improve in developing players but the USSF is also reaching far and wide in search of talent. Rongen said there are 400 players around the world born after 1989 (the cut-off for the 2012 Olympics) eligible to join the Red, White and Blue, although he admitted that he and his staff culled the list to 20 or so they thought had the potential to be elite players. Of that score, four or five including Hürzeler and Wood will likely end up on the World Cup roster.
As the US grows as a soccer-playing nation, persuading young men to switch their international allegiance is an increasingly easy conversation.
"We can make some very good cases that we can be a great place for them to go," Rongen said. "It's becoming a little bit easier to reach out to those players. A lot of times, we don't necessarily have to convince them. They come to us."
Mikkel Diskerud, a star of the senior squad's 1-0 victory in South Africa, is a good example. He wasn't on the USSF's radar until American U-20 team and Diskerud's Stabek club played each other during a friendly after both sides were bounced from the 2008 Copa Chivas in Guadalajara. At halftime, Stabek's coach mentioned that his No. 10 – Diskerud – had a US passport. Rongen approached the midfielder who has a mother born in Arizona, and months later he was scoring for the Americans in a friendly against Egypt.
Rongen and the coaching staff have their eyes on a few additional players around the world they hope to recruit for the U-20 cycle. It can be a long, involved process, but the manager believes they are succeeding. The USSF hasn't received any flat rejections – a la Giuseppe Rossi – from players they hope will don the Stars and Stripes.
The growing depth means that the U-20 roster remains constantly influx. In fact, there's a good chance Rongen won't have his first-choice group together until April qualifying. Clubs aren't required to release anyone unless it's an official FIFA date, and the US manager is willing to leave a player in Europe so he can improve his place on his team's depth chart and fight for minutes.
As a result, training camps consist of whoever can make the trip. It's a bit of a revolving door. For Rongen, that's fine.
Increasingly, he has the pieces to be successful no matter who arrives.
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.com.