Wilmer Cabrera
Getty Images

Cabrera optimistic of challenge with US U-17s

On Wednesday, 17-year-old Juan Agudelo netted the game-winning goal for the United States national team in South Africa.

Somewhere, US U-17 coach Wilmer Cabrera was watching, smiling about a job well done.

The 43-year-old Colombian World Cup veteran oversaw the development of the current New York Red Bulls striker, who spent a year-and-a-half progressing through the US academy at Bradenton, Fla., and played on Cabrera's 2009 side that reached the second round of the U-17 World Cup.

WATCH: Getting to know Juan Agudelo (Spanish)

Agudelo may have moved on to the senior squad, but his former coach has a new crop of 40 players that need tutelage. Half the group recently returned from a successful training trip to England, an experience that Cabrera feels was vital as much for the quality of the soccer as it was for the immersion into the sport’s lifestyle.

"It's important when we have the chance to expose our kids to a soccer environment, a tougher environment, a country where the primary sport is soccer," Cabrera told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Tuesday.

"We spent 10 days in Manchester. The weather was tough, cold, rainy, but that's how they live there,” he added. “They don't stop. They practice with wind, rain. Our kids learn to be more mature. You have to battle those situations. They are part of the game."

While across the pond, the teens saw Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez train, worked out on City's fields, and played youth sides from Blackburn and Scotland. They also enjoyed a visit from US international and Bolton Wanderers rising star Stuart Holden, who took the crew bowling.

Now, however, it's back to work in Florida as the team prepares to play Brazil, Korea Republic, and Turkey at the Nike International Friendlies held in Phoenix, Ariz., from Dec. 1-7. The semester of preparation will lead up to February's CONCACAF U-17 Championship, where the semifinalists earn automatic qualification to the 2011 U-17 World Cup.

The challenge for Cabrera and his staff is to simultaneously improve the individual skill of his charges – a group that includes players with roots in Mexico, Japan, and Guatemala among other countries – while simultaneously developing a cohesive unit.

But the coach knows he can be successful.

"At this point, we have some special players who have a good level and have been keeping themselves on the roster and on the trip and in the lineup," he said. "It's not difficult to identify them."

Cabrera singles out Marc Pelosi and Kellyn Acosta, the young defender from Plano, Texas, as players who have impressed him since joining the Residency Program in the fall.

"[Acosta was born in 1995], so he's one of the youngest, but he's been improving a lot," Cabrera said. "Normally, he's our right back, but he replaced injured [left back] Danny Zaid during the trip to England and did very well."

The increasing depth of talent in the US youth ranks is due to two factors. First, the federation is recruiting players from all over the world – at least 24 of the 40 players in the program have one parent born outside the US – and successfully bringing them to Bradenton. The second reason is the improvement of the academy system, although Cabrera knows there is more progress to be made.

"It's not working now, but it takes time. The new technical director, Claudio Reyna, is working on the youth, the 11-,12-, 13-year-olds." Cabrera said. "It's going to change and improve.

“They need to be soccer players first, and then we can develop them as athletes. That's the right procedure, and that's something he [Reyna] is trying to implement,” continued the coach. “That’s the right movement for the federation: Work with the kids at the younger age to develop their skills, then they work on fitness and strength."

Some academy coaches prioritize winning rather than teaching. This behavior is understandable in the cutthroat world of American club soccer, but the mentality needs to be altered, said Cabrera.

"At the beginning, you have to work on the skills and sacrifice winning," he said. "When you can develop better players, the winning part will come later."

Ten thousand miles from Florida, the senior team enjoyed a victorious moment thanks to the skill of a former U-17 player. Cabrera was no doubt as proud of the skill and poise Agudelo demonstrated while producing a flash of brilliance than as he was of the actual result.

It’s the end product of a man that just wants to be a teacher.

"That's our goal," Cabrera said. "That's our job, and that's why we work with these players.”

Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.

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