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Life is full of trials for under-17 squad

Winning isn't everything to the U.S. under-17 '88 men's national soccer team.

Tampa's Jeremy Hall scored for the U.S. U-17 squad on Saturday in a 2-2 draw with Ecuador in the CONMEBOL (South American Football Confederation) Copa America tournament.

And while the U.S. team failed to advance to the second round of the prestigious youth tournament in Encarnacion, Paraguay, the players garnered a little more international experience, which is invaluable on their journey to becoming U.S. men's national team players.

The U-17 roster features several players from Florida, including Hall and three others from the Tampa Bay area. These select athletes are part of the 40-player residency program at the IMG Academy in Bradenton.

Each year, U.S. Soccer scouts players from across the country. The likely place to be spotted is through state and regional Olympic Developmental Program teams.

In some cases, coaches find players at U.S. Youth Soccer Association regional and national playoffs. And in a rare case, word of mouth leads to a player making the team.

Tampa's Eddie Ababio, a new player in residency this semester, got the callup because of a local connection to the national team.

The director of coaching for Ababio's Hillsborough County United club is Adrian Bush, also an assistant at the University of Tampa. Bush told UT coach Tom Fitzgerald about Ababio, and after seeing him play, Fitzgerald called U-17 coach John Ellinger and told him he hadn't seen a young player at Ababio's level since Freddy Adu.

After trying out and making the U-17 squad, Ababio made a splashy debut in his first international match on July 17. He came off the bench to score the winner in a 3-2 victory over Canada.

There are other local coaching connections to the U-17 team as well. Assistants John Hackworth, Keith Fulk, and Peter Mellor have ties to the Tampa Bay area. Hackworth was the former coach at USF, Fulk was at UT, and Mellor was the goalkeeping coach for the Mutiny and has been a fixture of area club soccer many years.

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The transition from elite club player to one of many stars on the national team rarely is easy.

"They've all got talent, but it takes a lot of work to beat out 39 other kids," Hackworth said.

"We tell the players, "Every day you have to be a pro. Every day, you must show up and you must produce.' That's why this program is in place. The rest of the world has that mentality. We need to get it."

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Hall, a star for his HC United club, came into the residency program last year as a forward but has learned to play just about every position. He has played in most of the team's recent international matches and said he has learned the hard way: "International teams will do anything to win."

"Once, in Peru, they threw corn cobs at me. I had my hair out in a 'fro, and people were laughing and saying stuff at me. But then, when we beat them (2-1), they respected us."

Another HC United player, Blake Wagner, is fighting for a spot at left midfield or fullback. On the national team, players often have to learn more than one position to teach them how to make tactical decisions on different parts of the field.

Anthony Wallace, the center midfielder and captain of his Brandon Flames U-15 club team, which made it to USYSA Regionals this year, now plays defender for the U-17 team.

While Ababio has been compared by some to Adu because both are strikers and were born in Ghana, Hackworth said the similarities end there.

"There's never going to be another Freddy Adu, and we don't want Eddie to have to live up to that," Hackworth said. "Eddie's a talent and a good soccer player. But he has a different style."

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U.S. Soccer has made a huge investment for developing the future. Players in the residency program get a full ride for tuition, books, room, board, and travel. Families even get an all-expenses paid orientation trip, and players make two mid-semester trips home.

"Parents see this is a great thing for their kids," Hackworth said. "It's a safe environment, a great soccer environment, and they don't have to pay a dime for it."

In return, there is a strict training regimen players follow each day and an expectation of performance.

Besides a three-hour daily training regimen, players put in three days a week at the International Performance Institute at IMG Academy to help build strength, power and agility, and there are occasional "mental conditioning" groups facilitated by mentors.

While he loves the soccer, Hall said there are several sacrifices every player must make.

"It's a lot different from home. It's harder than living at home," he said. "There are a lot of rules. It's very strict. And there aren't many pretty girls around."

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The U.S. squad will train for eight months in preparation for the CONCACAF under-17 qualifying in Costa Rica on April 12-16.

The United States is the only nation to qualify for every U-17 World Championship since the inaugural tournament in 1985. The tournament is held every two years.

Besides winning the U-17 World Championship, the main goal of the residency program is to develop players for the men's national team.

The program appears to be succeeding, as the current U.S. roster features several former residency program players, and the United States is ranked No. 7 in the world in the latest FIFA poll.

"The goal is to get these talented young men and get them into professional environment earlier so they can bring their game up a level more quickly," Hackworth said.

With the daily pressure of top competition and the rigors of international travel to rustic and sometimes hostile environs, U.S. Soccer hopes to develop tougher players for the men's pool.

U.S. Soccer fans are familiar with how turbulent things can get in international play. The U-23 men's team was eliminated from Olympic qualifying after an infamous 4-0 loss in Guadalajara on Feb. 10, when Mexican fans drowned out the Star Spangled Banner with boos and shouted "Osama!"

"That kind of stuff happens every place we go," Hackworth said. "It's almost impossible to play in a place like Kingston, Jamaica. It definitely gets nasty sometimes.

"What (U.S. men's national coach) Bruce Arena needs are players to be mature during travel. If we expose them to that at an early age, by the time they get to national team, it's no problem."

Besides the hostile crowds, the team has endured many travel difficulties such as a torturous eight-hour bus ride through a Peruvian desert.

"Any time anyone tells you it's a six-hour bus drive, add two more hours," Hackworth said. "There's bound to be a donkey crossing."

Despite the grueling journey, the United States finished second in the Copa Telefonica Tournament in Trujillo, Peru, in August. The team came from behind to draw Ecuador 1-1 in its final match after earlier beating Peru 2-1 and falling to Colombia 2-0.

"We're okay as long as we won't eat, drink or get bitten by anything," Hackworth said, half-jokingly.

Hackworth added the team always brings along "tons" of its own bottled water, as well as a team doctor and three trainers.