Kofi Sarkodie
John Dorton/ISI

Dynamo int'l vets remember U.S. youth days

The United States U-20s kick off their qualifying campaign for the 2011 U-20 World Cup on Tuesday night, facing Suriname at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Guatemala, and for a number of Houston Dynamo players, it’s a welcome reminder of their own treks to become professionals.

The Dynamo have 13 former or current youth national-team players on their roster, including eight who have represented their nations in a youth World Cup, championship, or qualifying tournament: Brad Davis, Hunter Freeman, Danny Cruz, Kofi Sarkodie, and Corey Ashe for the U.S.; Jermaine Taylor and Lovel Palmer for Jamaica; and Andre Hainault for Canada.

“Wearing the U.S. shirt was one of those feelings I can’t describe, because you're representing your family and your nation,” said Sarkodie (pictured above), who played in the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup and will watch a number of national team and former college teammates on Tuesday. “To walk on the field in a World Cup match or a qualifier, you feel like you’re finally here and all the hard work paid off.”

The U.S. residency program plays a big role in the youth national team experience. When asked about living and training in Bradenton, Fla., the players praised the level of coaching and the opportunity to train with youth players at the same skill level.

“For me, it’s no secret it’s what helped me get to where I am today,” said Cruz, who played in the 2007 U-17 and 2009 U-20 World Cups. “My U-17 coach [John] Hackworth — who is an assistant at Philadelphia now — and coach Thomas Rongen, for me, played a huge role by working with me and giving me the confidence to be a player on this level.”

Ashe played in the 2003 U-17 World Cup and also wore the U.S. jersey at the prestigious Toulon U-23 tournament in France in 2008. He too credited the residency program for helping his development.

“You have the best players in the U.S. in one place,” Ashe said. “We had 18 or 20 good players, so they concentrated on the tactical side of things, which was a big difference from the [youth] club level.”

Coaching is not the only thing that sticks with the graduates of the youth system. There’s also a bond involved. The work put in while playing — and in some cases, living — with their national teammates is something unique the players share, and it keeps them connected to the program.

“It’s a fraternity for guys who have been there,” said Freeman, who was part of the residency program and later played in the 2005 U-20 World Cup. “You live there for two years, and there’re lots of ups and downs. Those things only make you stronger, and they prepare you for the level that we’re at now, because that’s how it is here.”

Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on twitter at @Dynamoexaminer.