tampabay.com

A gold mine for U.S. soccer team

Young players hone their skills at program in Bradenton.

By BRANDON WRIGHT
Published March 25, 2007


TAMPA - The United States national team takes the pitch at noon today at Raymond James Stadium against Ecuador in an international friendly, but the core of its talent can be traced about an hour south.

Nine players on today's roster came through the U.S. Under-17 Residency Program in Bradenton. Started in 1999 at the IMG Academy, the program is designed to identify the top youth talent in the country and acclimate them to playing against top college, club and international competition.

"It's hard to say that the program has been anything but a complete success," forward Landon Donovan said.

Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu were members of the first class and led the Americans to their best finish ever (fourth) at the U-17 World Cup.

"In this country we don't get an opportunity to be in that type of intense soccer environment playing against kids that good at that young of an age," Donovan said. "It had never happened until we got there."

The players live on campus at the IMG Academy and train daily under the supervision of former South Florida and current U-17 national coach John Hackworth. They train in the morning and attend class at nearby Edison Academy in the afternoon.

"If you look at the number of players on our team now that came from that program, it's great," interim coach Bob Bradley said. "When you see young players that have good habits and understand what we're trying to do here, a lot of it comes from that background. I think (the program) has been essential."

Since the program's inception, 170 players have been through the full-time residency program. More than 40 of those players have graduated to Major League Soccer or European leagues. Twelve residency players have played internationally at least once with the national team.

"The program was engineered to give us a professional experience, and that's what it did," Onyewu said. "A lot of the guys from that first class are professionals now, so I think it's a good step in terms of preparing young soccer players."

And Onyewu said he took more from the program than what was taught on the pitch.

"The camaraderie of living every day with the players makes you more than teammates and builds a bond that's a lot deeper," he said. "I keep in touch with almost all the guys from the program, so in addition to building better soccer players, you're building better people as well."

All of the players entering the program have been stars in youth soccer, and Eddie Johnson said being surrounded by the best of the best was a wakeup call.

"I remember playing an exhibition game at Duke, I pooped my pants the first 10 minutes of the game, and coach took me off the field," he said. "Then I didn't play the next game, and from that point on I realized nothing is given to you. It's not what you've done but what you're doing now."

Zack MacMath, who played his freshman season at St. Petersburg before his selection to the program in August and will play a half against El Salvador's U-17, has the opportunity that these national team players once had.

"As soon as we step on the field, every minute of every training session is so intense," MacMath said. "But working hard and playing against the best is what is going to make us better."

The national team trained last week at the IMG Academy, and for many it was the first time back since their residency days, giving the current generation a chance to interact with their predecessors.

"I hope that we gave them a sense of encouragement," Onyewu said. "Hopefully they understand that they too can reach the top level as well as long as they work hard and are resilient."

. Today

U.S. vs. Ecuador

Noon, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa

TV: ESPN2, Galavision

. IF YOU GO

Gates open at 9 a.m. before the U-17 match against El Salvador. Tickets start at $18 and are available at Ticketmaster or at (813) 287-8844. The stadium box office opens at 8:30.