U.S. run in Under-17 World Cup brings hope for American soccer fans

India US Paraguay Under 17 WCUP-17102017-0003
The United States has reached the quarterfinals of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup for the first time since 2005. Its head coach is former Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth (second from right).

After the darkest week in modern American soccer history, a ray of light has risen from halfway around the world.

Over in India, the United States has reached the quarterfinals of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup for the first time since 2005. The Americans beat the host nation and Ghana to reach the knockout rounds, then routed Paraguay, 5-0, in the round of 16. They will play England in the semifinals Saturday (10:30 a.m., Fox Sports 2 and Telemundo).

It’s coincidence that this success comes in the wake of the senior men’s team’s failure to qualify for its World Cup for the first time since 1986. But the American soccer community is certainly happy to have a shot of optimism.

The round-of-16 victory was the U.S. team’s first win in an Under-17 World Cup knockout-round game since 1999, when the tournament was smaller. That team had Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Union defender Oguchi Onyewu, and Philadelphia native Bobby Convey. The Americans reached the third-place game, and Donovan was named player of the tournament.

The 2005 team included Jozy Altidore, Omar Gonzalez, and other future MLS regulars.

It might be a while before we know if the current players become as good as Donovan or Altidore. But there are clear signs of promise.

Three players have already made their professional debuts for MLS teams: Atlanta United’s Andrew Carleton, D.C. United’s Chris Durkin and New York City FC’s James Sands.

“It’s going to continue to trend in that direction,” said former U.S. national team goalkeeper Tony Meola, now an analyst with SiriusXM and Fox.

Meola also works as an assistant with other U.S. youth national teams. He has watched the program grow out of the era when many U.S. prospects wouldn’t turn pro until going to college.

“This age group in our country, they’ve never had to battle, they’ve never had to be around pros like that before” day in and day out, he said. “It’s important that they are in that environment on a daily basis.”

Carleton has drawn a lot of attention for his potential as a creative playmaker. He has shown off his skills in India, with two goals and three assists.

The squad’s top strikers are already getting attention in Europe. Josh Sargent will join Germany’s Werder Bremen when he turns 18 in February. Tim Weah, son of global soccer legend George Weah, is in the academy at French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain.

Sargent has two goals and an assist in India, adding to his four goals at the Under-20 World Cup a few months ago. He is the first American since Freddy Adu in 2003 to play at under-17 and under-20 World Cups in the same year.

Weah scored a hat trick in the Paraguay game, including a beautiful curling blast from 18 yards.

They are coached by a familiar name to Philadelphia soccer fans: former Union manager John Hackworth. He was unsuccessful here, but has done much better throughout his career at the youth level. This is Hackworth’s second tenure in charge of the under-17s, having first led them from 2004-07.

“He’s got a great demeanor for this group,” Meola said. “He’s a teacher. … You get a glimpse of how good they can be on the attacking side of things, and this has been an attacking team from Day 1.”