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“We live in a crazy world right now…” John Hackworth, the coach of the United States under-17 team, sounds helpless. Last month, Hurricane Irma did not just destroy thousands of lives, it also disrupted the USA’s training camp for the under-17 World Cup. And on Monday, his first training session after landing in Delhi was impacted by the news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. “…there’s so many bad things happening,” Hackworth says.
The coach was finalising his squad in September when the catastrophic hurricane hit Florida. Their camp had to be called off and the players were shifted to an elementary school, where they spent three days in classrooms. “We didn’t know what to do at the time. So we lived in a shelter and were safe. But it meant we weren’t on the training field for more than three days. It disrupted our whole training camp,” he says.
Practising in India, he hoped, would help them focus on the task at hand. But all morning on Monday, they were glued to the television sets, following the news about the goings-on in Las Vegas, where more than 50 people died in the country’s worst incident of mass shooting. “We live in a crazy world right now where a lot of these things are happening,” Hackworth says. “We don’t forget about those things but try to focus on what we can and enjoy moments like these (participating in a global tournament).”
They are certainly enjoying the weather here. Hackworth calls the Delhi air, and weather, ‘beautiful’. Like most, he had heard about the city’s pollution woes but so far, he says, “the climate here has been nice.” “We hear stories and things but we have been here since Sunday and we were in Dubai before that. Dubai was hard to be in – hot and humid,” he says.
In that humidity, they trained for a week to get acclimatised. It showed how serious they are about this tournament. And it can further be gauged from the size of their support staff. A 15-member team is accompanying the 21-player squad. It includes a security official, who sanitised the training ground before the practice began on Tuesday.
The coaches of all their age group teams (U-15, U-16, U-19 and U-20) will be here. Brad Friedel, a three-time World Cupper, is here as well. The former goalkeeper is the under-19 head coach and under-20 assistant coach. “I think it’s very important that you’re around the kids to see what you’re getting mentally and physically so you’re not just seeing on the television,” the former Blackburn Rovers and Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper says. “We all work together – the youth national team coaches. It’s important we all see what’s coming through the pipeline.”
Going by what was on display on Tuesday, Friedel stares at a problem of plenty. This American team is considered to be one of the best-ever in this age-group. Hackworth says they’ve stayed and trained together for the last two years. In players like Josh Sargent, signed by German club Werder Bremen last month, and PSG’s Timothy Weah, they have two of the most exciting players in this tournament.
Whether this helps the US, who have qualified for all but one edition of this event, to improve their best-ever fourth-place finish achieved at the 1999 edition remains to be seen. Hackworth, though, is making sure the team does not get ahead of itself.
He is respectful of India, whom he calls the ‘most hardworking’ team he has faced in the last two years. The two teams have met once – at the AIFF Youth Cup in Goa last year. USA trounced India 4-0 back then but Hackworth insists the result isn’t a fair reflection on how much they were made to work for the win. “I thought they are the hardest working team we’ve faced in the whole two years. So I think they have developed and gotten better. At the same time, I think we have too,” he says.
But it’s the occasion that excites him. The US will be India’s first opponent at a World Cup, never mind a junior version. Hackworth has been informed there will be a ‘very loud crowd.’ But he is also aware of the challenges it poses for both sets of players. “We are talking about teenagers dealing with all those emotions so that presents challenges for both teams. Maybe for India to handle the pressure of the moment in front of their home fans. And for us to play the way we feel we can and not get caught up in emotions,” Hackworth says.