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Wilmer Cabrera and U-17s Ready for Nike International Friendlies in Bradenton

ussoccer.com speaks to U-17 MNT head coach Wilmer Cabrera about the new players in Residency, the experience of the Nike International Friendlies and how the Development Academy has continued to raise the level of young players around the country.

© John Dorton/isiphotos.com

Wilmer Cabrera

IN THE IMAGE: U.S. U-17 MNT head coach Wilmer Cabrera will lead his team against France, Turkey and Brazil.

U.S. Under-17 head coach Wilmer Cabrera has undertaken one of the biggest challenges of his tenure, bringing in a completely new group of players for the first time as the two-year cycle begins in preparation for qualifying for the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup. The 32 players, all born in 1996, joined U.S. Soccer’s Residency Program this past August and have begun the process of making the adjustment to soccer at the international level. On the eve of the 2011 Nike International Friendlies, ussoccer.com spoke with Cabrera about the new crop of talent, the importance of the friendlies, and the increasingly streamlined path from the U.S. Soccer Development Academy to the U.S. Youth National Teams.

ussoccer.com: You have brought in the newest, and perhaps youngest, group of players into the U.S. Soccer Residency Program. How has the initiation process gone?
Wilmer Cabrera: “We started off at the end of August with the new group. All the players are born in 1996. The idea is to prepare them for the 2013 FIFA World Cup, and these are among the players who would be going. Obviously we have to qualify first, so we must get them ready for the qualifying tournament. It’s been a normal process to get adapted to the Residency Program. It’s not easy. It’s difficult for the kids because they have to leave home and they have to live here, but it’s been good so far. This competition is going to be very important for them because they have to play in front of their own fans. It’s a great experience, and it’s what they need to do to release that pressure of the responsibility they have normally. They’re very young, so that part is really important, and I think it’s a good moment for them to play this tournament.”

ussoccer.com: What are the types of experiences the players will take away from the Nike International Friendlies?
WC: “I’m very thankful for the U.S. Soccer Federation, because since I’ve been here, the Nike International Friendlies have been a great and very competitive tournament. With Brazil, Turkey, France, it’s the top teams around the world in this age group. For the kids to get exposed to them, that’s the best challenge and the best way to measure themselves. They can see ‘okay, we’re far behind’, or ‘oh, we’re close, but we need to work on this and this and this to get better, and we will have two years to work on that.’ It’s better to get exposed now, and the kids will know now what’s going to happen and what the competition is like at the level. Then we can close those doors and start working on all those aspects to get better.”

ussoccer.com: What do you expect from this France team?
WC: “We played against France in France one month ago, and it was one of the top teams I ever played against since I’ve been here in this program during the four years. It’s a magnificent team, a perfect team to play. [They are] excellent tactically, technically, and physically. That’s why it’s great to start with them. The players know them already, they know they’re excellent, and it’s good to play the favorites right away. It’s a good experience.”

ussoccer.com: How will you manage the roster over the three games?
WC: “I want to try to expose all the players in the roster, because this is the time when we need to use all 20 guys. Obviously it’s about winning, but it’s not the time to think just about winning the tournament using only 11 players. Hopefully we can use all 20 and try to win. That’s the idea because we’re preparing the whole program and all the players. At this moment it’s all about development. We need to expose all the players to this type of game.”

ussoccer.com: All 78 clubs from the Development Academy will be here and have the chance to watch these international teams play. How important is it for the Development Academy players to see the elite games?
WC: “It’s really important. The connection to the Academy is so important for us because we are going to watch Select players from the Development Academy, and we want those players to see the level and to compare themselves and to say, ‘I can be challenging these players for the National Team or I can take a spot from them.’ This is an everyday competition. This is not just a competition among the Residency players. We’re going to look at you if you’re playing for the Development Academy, which has improving every year. If they’re good, we’re going to take them, because this is the National Team. We take the best players across the country.”

ussoccer.com: How is the progress going of identifying and including more Development Academy players into the National Team?
WC: “It’s the normal process. It started a little bit slow, but [the Development Academy] has been growing in all aspects. The most important aspect that I have noticed is the level of the competition is getting better for the players. When we used to play Development Academy clubs, we used to play easy and comfortable. It’s not like that anymore. It’s very competitive, the level is very good, and those players are getting better. Not only have they been improving for us, the U-17s, but also for the U-18s, and the U-20s. The more that we believe in this process, the level is going to be better, and we’re going to have better players coming out from those teams to provide the National Teams with a good level of players with a good mentality, which is so important to compete at a national level. It’s been great, and for us right now it’s a very important tool because we can identify the players better. If they’re playing at a Development Academy level, we can use them here, and the transition for them from the club to the international level of competition is going to be better. They will adapt quicker and better.”

ussoccer.com: Once again there will be games amongst Academy Select Teams. What are you able to take away from those matches?
WC: “Every showcase, we have the Select teams where the top Academy players who have performed better throughout the season get together. Tony Lepore, the head of scouting, has put together the rosters. For us, it’s great to put those guys together playing each other at the Showcase. The best players in the Select games show that they can be competing for the U.S. roster. We bring those guys to a camp, we mix them with our players, and if they’re better, they’re going to stay with the National Team and the Residency Program. It’s all about that competition, and it’s been very successful for us and very important for us.”

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