U.S. Under-17 national team coach John Hackworth unveiled his roster for the U-17 World Cup on Thursday and it features several prospects who have already become familiar names despite their young ages.
There is Josh Sargent, a player that recently signed with Werder Bremen after dominating at both the U-17 and U-20 levels. There is Atlanta United prospect Andrew Carleton and New York City FC’s James Sands, who headline a list of six players already playing as professionals. There’s also Timothy Weah, son of legendary Liberian star George Weah, that joins Sargent in headlining the forward pool.
It isn’t the recognizable names that has Hackworth as excited as the number talented options he has to choose from heading into the World Cup in India.
“This has been a fantastic process, but a difficult one,” Hackworth said on Friday. “The reason I think it’s fantastic is because the quality and depth in this particular age group, and not only that but the 2001s, it’s been really, from my perspective, great that there’s so much quality out there in this particular age group.
“It’s difficult because, obviously, those guys are fighting for spots. Over the course of the last year alone, we had approximately 100 players in camps or that played games with us, which was, again, a fantastic thing for us and player development and posed some serious challenges for our staff when we got to the time to slim down our selection of this roster…In the end, we feel really confident with the group of players we’re taking to India.”
Of the 21 players on the U.S. roster, 17 were on the roster when the U.S. fell to Mexico on penalty kicks in the final match of CONCACAF qualifying. It was a squad that was largely dominant throughout that tournament, crushing opponents by a combined score of 19-5 before falling to Mexico.
That leaves four new faces. NYCFC product Tyler Shaver joins after recovering from a PCL injury to rejoin the group in late May. Forward Jacobo Reyes and defender Sergino Dest add to the group after featuring in several camps outside of the qualifying campaign. Goalkeeper Alex Budnik was added as the third goalkeeper after just missing a qualifying roster that carried just two players at his position.
While the newcomers provide depth, the U.S. will most certainly rely on it more experienced stars to set the pace. Carleton’s performance in qualifying and with Atlanta United have shown a flair for the spectacular. Ayo Akinola joins Weah as yet another dynamic forward option. Players like Chris Goslin, Chris Durkin and Blaine Ferri will be tasked with holding down the midfield.
The key, though, is Sargent, who has been pinpointed as the star of the group for quite some time. After scoring five goals in qualifying and then four more at the U-20 World Cup, Sargent enters with a lot riding on his shoulders.
“I think this is a big challenge for Josh, because it’s going to be difficult for him,” Hackworth said of the forward. “The only way he can improve on his Under-20 performance is to win the Golden Boot at the Under-17 World Cup, and that’s hands down an incredibly tough challenge.
“What I really like about Josh and his development and having these experiences like the U-20 World Cup is that it doesn’t change his daily focus with how he goes about his job and trying to get better. He’s very confident in his ability. His work-ethic is excellent and he’s also a very humble person so he doesn’t let any of that get in the way of the fact that he’s motivated on a daily basis to get better. He’s a good person off the field, he’s our captain and one of our leaders.”
Hackworth has seen talent before as he heads into his third U-17 World Cup. In 2003, he helped coach a squad that features Jonathan Spector, Freddy Adu, Eddie Gaven and Danny Szetela. The 2005 squad had lower expectations but advanced to the quarterfinal led by future stars like Jozy Altidore, Omar Gonzalez and Neven Subotic.
It is impossible to compare this group with ones that came over a decade before. Instead, there are lessons to learn from the 2015 squad, which featured players like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre and Haji Wright. That team, for all of its talent, went out in the World Cup group stage.
That team faced a tough group, and this one does as well. There’s host India to start before the U.S. faces a long-time rival in Ghana, a team Hackworth noted is a perennial power at the U-17 level. Then comes Colombia, a group that is always technical and always creative on the ball.
The key will be managing that group and the challenges that may come after it. In his team, Hackworth sees a team with experience, talent, and depth, but they still have to put it all together to cap off this cycle in India.
“We played India once before and we were successful against them, but it wasn’t in the opening game of a World Cup and it wasn’t them hosting a World Cup,” Hackworth said. “My feeling is that there’s going to be a very loud crowd. They’re already, without anything else, an incredibly athletic and hard-working team. We are going to have to beat the host country in the opening game with a lot of the ceremony around us, and that’s a difficult challenge.
“We’re going to have to really manage each game on an individual basis, and it’s going to be difficult. At the same time, we feel really confident about this. We’ve beaten 10 of the teams that are in this tournament and some of those teams are some of the best teams in the world. We have reason to believe that we can compete with anybody. Now, we have to prove that in the most important event at this age group.”