Soccer

U.S., Italy in a World Cup NIT? It could happen

Christian Pulisic, the 19-year-old U.S. phenom, says one problem with U.S. Soccer is that players aged 16-18 are not challenged enough.
Christian Pulisic, the 19-year-old U.S. phenom, says one problem with U.S. Soccer is that players aged 16-18 are not challenged enough. US SOCCER

When the stunning news broke last week that Italy did not make the World Cup for the first time since 1958, joining the United States, Netherlands, Chile and Ghana on the elimination list, I joked on Twitter that maybe they should hold a World Cup NIT.

College basketball teams that don’t earn berths in the NCAA Tournament get invited to the NIT, which is short for National Invitation Tournament but jokingly referred to as the Not Invited Tournament. Well, apparently somebody at U.S. Soccer had a similar thought because officials confirmed to ESPN and a few other media outlets that they are in preliminary talks with Major League Soccer’s marketing arm, SUM (Soccer United Marketing), about the possibility of a friendly tournament or series of friendlies involving teams that won’t be going to Russia.

The field would be quite attractive with four-time World Cup champion Italy, three-time finalist Netherlands, traditional African power Ghana, Copa America champion Chile, and the USA, which had played in the past seven World Cups.

Throw in Greece, Honduras, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, South Africa and Wales, and you’ve got yourself an exciting little tournament.

It is still hard to fathom that the World Cup will go on without Italy. How on earth did the Italians get bounced? Plain and simple, they failed to score a goal in two games against Sweden. Andre Belotti, Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne and Manolo Gabbiadini did not live up to the legendary Roberto Baggio, Francescto Totti and Christian Vieri.

The defenders were not as good as Alessandro Nesta, now coach of Miami FC. There were no true replacements for former stars Andrea Pirlo and Alessandro del Piero. Italy had been in a bit of decline in recent years, losing in the Group Stage of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. But this year, they reached a new low.

One theory is that as Serie A has loaded up on foreign talent, there are fewer spots for Italian young players to develop. The percentage of foreign players in Serie A jumped from 33 percent to 55 percent over the past 15 years. There is a similar concern in England, where the number of internationals in the Premier League continues to grow.

It doesn’t appear that trend will be reversing any time soon – if ever – so It will be interesting to see what the future holds.

As for the future of the U.S. team, 19-year-old standout Christian Pulisic penned a piece for The Players’ Tribune addressing the state of U.S. Soccer. He says it is vital for American players to face better competition between the ages of 16-18.

“For a soccer player ... ask anyone and they'll tell you -- those age 16-18 years are everything,” Pulisic wrote. “From a developmental perspective, it's almost like this sweet spot: It's the age where a player's growth and skill sort of intersect, in just the right way -- and where, with the right direction, a player can make their biggest leap in development by far.

“In the U.S. system, too often the best player on an under-17 team will be treated like a 'star' -- not having to work for the ball, being the focus of the offense at all times, etc. -- at a time when they should be having to fight tooth and nail for their spot.

“In Europe, on the other hand, the average level of ability around you is just so much higher. It's a pool of players where everyone has been 'the best player,' and everyone is fighting for a spot -- truly week in and week out. Which makes the intensity and humility that you need to bring to the field every day – both from a mental and physical perspective -- just unlike anything that you can really experience in U.S. developmental soccer.”

He says MLS needs to do a better job of integrating teenage players.

"I also understand, of course, that -- even with the option to leave -- leaving the States might not be for everyone. Staying is fine, and I totally respect it.

"But at the same time, I've gotta say: It really does frustrate me, when I watch MLS, and I see our best U-17 players -- who, again, are so talented and so capable -- being rostered ... but then not being put on the field much to actually play. I watch that, and I just think about how I was given a chance ... a real chance ... and it changed my life. Why then are we seemingly hesitant to allow these other talents to blossom?"

FIU advances in NCAAs: The FIU men’s team plays at Duke at 6 p.m. Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. FIU (12-1-4) beat Omaha 2-0 in the first round.

Standings...

EPL: Manchester City (31), Manchester United, Tottenham (23), Chelsea (22), Burnley, Arsenal, Liverpool (19)

La Liga: Barcelona (31), Valencia (27), Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid (23), Villarreal (20)

Serie A: Napoli (32), Juventus (31), Inter (30), Lazio (28), Roma (27)

Bundesliga: Bayer (26), Leipzig (22), Dortmund, Schalke (20), Hoffenheim (19)

Ligue I: PSG (32), Monaco (28), Lyon (25), Marseille (24), Nantes (23)

On TV:

Sunday – Sampdoria vs. Juventus (9 a.m., BeINSport), Watford vs. West Ham (11 a.m., NBCSN), Inter vs. Atalanta (2:45 p.m., BeINSport)

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