CONCACAF 2015 U-20 Championship: Group A Preview
The CONCACAF U-20 Championship is on its way to brighten up your January. OTF’s Austin Fido takes a look at the teams in Group A…
In the mood for some CONCACAF?
If you live in North or Central America, or the Caribbean, you’re in luck: CONCACAF is all around! But also it’s not. In January the region is a little sleepy: Liga MX is just waking up from a winter’s break; MLS is in hibernation; Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala – all still napping.
It is not the case that every league in CONCACAF is on hiatus in the first week of January – you’ll find football in Trinidad at the moment, for example – but it’s pretty close.
Never fear: CONCACAF’s U-20 Men’s Championship is here!
The region’s showcase for its emerging generation of international players gets underway in Jamaica on January 9. It will run to January 24, by which time most of the aforementioned leagues will be up and running again; even MLS should showing some inclination to get started on a preseason. Until then, think of the U-20 Championship as your mid-winter bridge to a new year of CONCACAF soccer.
The tournament has changed a little since 2013: instead of four groups of three advancing two teams each to knockout rounds, we’re getting two groups of six. And those two groups will each advance a winner to the tournament final.
The teams finishing second and third in each group get a playoff by way of consolation. And that’s it.
The two finalists and the two playoff winners will be CONCACAF’s representatives for the U-20 World Cup this summer.
Why care about the kids? Well, those kids grow up. Top scorer in the 2011 edition was Costa Rica’s Joel Campbell, who made a good impression in this summer’s World Cup. The 2013 iteration saw the US’s Luis Gil and Wil Trapp make the Team of the Tournament: both players are knocking at the door of Jurgen Klinsmann’s senior USMNT squad at the moment.
By the U-20 level, it is fair to expect most players to at least be attached to professional clubs (even the US squad, which this year features just one player actively enrolled in the college system). They won’t all be stars, certainly not overnight: 2013’s top scorer, Panama’s Amet Ramirez has scored just one league goal in his last two seasons for his club (he got his U-20 Golden Boot by scoring four goals in three games); the tournament’s MVP, Mexico’s Antonio Briseño, is still more emerging than emerged in terms of the expression of his talent in Liga MX.
Still, there are good players in the U-20 sides, and some of them are quite likely to get swept up in the current international football cycle: U-20 World Cup this year, Olympics in 2016, then an off-year Gold Cup in 2017, followed by the 2018 World Cup. Standouts in each of those tournaments will win consideration for the next.
Even those who don’t stand out have a shot: Marco Fabian was part of Mexico’s 2009 squad for this tournament – which finished last in its group and missed out on the U-20 World Cup that followed – but he was part of the build up for the 2012 Olympics, won that tournament with Mexico, and was part of El Tri‘s 2014 World Cup squad.
We don’t know if any stars will reveal themselves in 2015, but we do know the identity of the players attempting to advance their careers for club and country by claiming regional U-20 glory in Jamaica this January.
Here is part one of a look at this year’s contestants: the teams of Group A.
Group A: Aruba, Guatemala, Jamaica, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, United States
Group Stage Schedule:
1/9 – vs. Panama
1/11 – vs. Trinidad and Tobago
1/14 – vs. United States
1/18 – vs. Guatemala
1/21 – vs. Jamaica
This is Aruba’s first trip to this tournament, and it is fair to say expectations are low. At least, on paper, it will be the underdog in every match it contests.
The squad comprises players plying their trade in Aruba’s domestic league and a smattering of guys (eight) playing in the Netherlands (generally for lower league teams).
In qualifying for this tournament, the team proved a difficult opponent to break down: it won four games and lost two, all by a single goal (twice winning 1-0, twice 2-1; losing twice 1-2). But Aruba only played two teams that will be competing in Jamaica – Cuba and Haiti – and those were the two games it lost.
Key Player: Jean Marc Antersijn
The goalkeeper won the Golden Glove award in Caribbean zone qualifying. If he gets anywhere close to contention for the same honor in this competition, it will likely mean Aruba is defying expectations.
How they got here: Sensationally.
An injury-time goal off a corner with the ‘keeper up and the whole team knowing it was score or go home: you don’t see those scenarios work out very often.
Expected to…Lose every game
The simple consequence of being perceived as the weakest team to emerge from the weakest qualifying region in CONCACAF.
Wildest Dream: Beat Guatemala
One point would be an achievement; three points would be almost as joyous and surprising an occasion as the last-gasp goal that got Aruba here. Prime candidate for an unlikely upset: Guatemala, the team that looks to be the second-weakest in Group A.
Group Stage Schedule:
1/9 – vs. United States
1/11 – vs. Jamaica
1/14 -vs. Trinidad and Tobago
1/18 – vs. Aruba
1/21 – vs. Panama
Guatemala edged Costa Rica out of this competition on a tiebreaker in Central American qualifying. But it was an important tiebreaker: La Azul y Blanco beat Los Ticos.
Indeed, in a tight qualifying tournament, it is a little harsh to suggest Guatemala is the “worst” of the teams out of Central America: it finished a point behind El Salvador and Honduras; only Panama really had a comfortable run in the seven-team round-robin that determined UNCAF’s representatives in Jamaica.
Unfortunately for Guatemala, Panama is the only other Central American team in its group – and Los Canaleros delivered a 3-0 thrashing when the teams met in July.
The team will know where it stands in this competition before it meets Panama again. If it can pick up points in its first three games – against the US, Jamaica and T&T – it might be playing for more than pride by the time its last group match against Los Canaleros rolls around.
Key Player: Mauro Portillo
Goals win games, and Guatemala has the top scorer in Central American qualifying in its squad.
How they got here: Fourth-placed team in Central American zone qualifying.
Expected to…Beat Aruba and nobody else.
The US is a pre-tournament favorite; Jamaica is the host nation; Trinidad and Tobago won Caribbean qualifying; Panama is the best team out of the Central American qualifiers; only three teams will get out of the group.
The omens are not great for Guatemala.
Wildest Dream: Get out of the group and into the U-20 World Cup.
Guatemala finished third in the 2011 tournament (which it hosted). And Group A probably should be considered the weaker of the two groups in this competition, based on relative squad strength rather than how the various teams qualified. A top-three finish isn’t out of reach, and would put La Azul y Blanco 90 minutes away from New Zealand, or even its first regional title.
Group Stage Schedule:
1/9 – vs. Trinidad and Tobago
1/11 – vs. Guatemala
1/14 – vs. Panama
1/18 – vs. United States
1/21 – vs. Aruba
The schedule at least offers the prospect of going out on a high: if all else fails, Jamaica will expect to beat Aruba. But the host nation of course wants to do better than that. CONCACAF made the local federation sweat over the adequacy of its hosting capabilities, but the green light was eventually lit, and now the task is to capitalize on home advantage and find a path to New Zealand.
A predominantly locally-based squad should be able to convert familiarity with conditions into results. Coach Theodore “Tappa” Whitmore was the senior national team head coach until Jamaica’s fortunes in World Cup qualifying took a dive.
Jamaica is not a favorite to win the tournament, even with home advantage. But three teams will get out of each group, and four of those six will go to the U-20 World Cup. Even with concerns over their preparations for the competition, these Boyz should be targeting a summer on the other side of the world.
Key Player: Michael Seaton
This writer has a soft spot for attacking midfielder Cardel Benbow, who had a fairytale year in 2014: summer in NPSL, followed by a memorable CONCACAF Champions League appearance for Jamaican pro-side Waterhouse FC against DC United, followed by his first senior national team cap.
But Seaton has a few national team caps himself, and scored his first senior international goals in 2014, including one against Serbia. And he found the net in Jamaica’s 2-1 warm-up win over Cuba as part of the preparation for this tournament. This could be his moment to announce himself as what both his club (DC United) and his country are hoping for: an international-class striker.
How they got here: Qualified automatically as hosts.
Expected to…Get out of its group.
What good is home advantage if you can’t get to at least third in a group of six?
Wildest Dream: Get to the U-20 World Cup.
A Caribbean team has never won the CONCACAF U-20 Championship. Few are expecting Jamaica to change that record, but a top-four finish is not quite such a distant dream.
Group Stage Schedule:
1/9 – vs. Aruba
1/11 – vs. United States
1/14 – vs. Jamaica
1/18 – vs. Trinidad and Tobago
1/21 – vs. Guatemala
Los Canaleros won five straight games to win Central America’s qualifying tournament for this competition with relative ease (they dropped their last game, after qualification was assured).
They have some right to consider themselves among the top four teams in Jamaica, despite the absence of any particularly big names in the squad.
There is, however, professional experience: Fidel Escobar is a 19-year-old defender now in his second season as a regular starter in Panama’s top division; club teammate (both play for Sporting San Miguelito) Carlos Small has 14 league goals in 31 appearances over the past couple of seasons; 18-year-old Chin Hormechea is a similarly experienced pro for Árabe Unido; Richard Rodriguez has almost 50 league appearances to his name for San Francisco FC – he turned 19 on Christmas Day.
And 17 of the 20 players in the squad are attached to one of the four top clubs in the Panamanian top flight last season: Sporting San Miguelito, San Francisco, Chorrillo and Tauro. Experience and familiarity will be the key factors in whatever success this team enjoys in Jamaica.
Key Player: Ismael Díaz
A hat-trick in Panama’s warm-up game against El Salvador suggests the 17-year-old attacking player is bringing confidence with him to Jamaica.
How they got here: Won Central American zone qualifying.
Expected to…Qualify for New Zealand
This is the top U-20 team in Central America; finishing top three in Group A and beating (most likely) either Canada, Honduras or El Salvador is an entirely reasonable expectation.
Wildest Dream: Win the tournament
If not Mexico or the US, why not Panama?
Trinidad and Tobago
Group Stage Schedule:
1/9 – vs. Jamaica
1/11 – vs. Aruba
1/14 – vs. Guatemala
1/18 – vs. Panama
1/21 – vs. United States
It has not been an ideal build-up to the tournament for T&T. A litany of administrative failings has seen the squad’s preparations disrupted by visa issues, and even those young players who were not in the running for this competition have found themselves left out of the other major regional event of this January – the MLS Caribbean Combine.
To further compound the issue, the schedule delivers an opening game against Jamaica: regional rivals who will be boosted by home advantage. If morale in the camp is fragile now, it may only be further weakened after the first match.
Momentum is important in a short tournament with little time to rest or prepare between games, especially in the early stages. And T&T does not look to have built a positive momentum for itself.
Key Player: Shannon Gomez
No one had it harder than the team’s captain as the U-20s suffered through a variety of visa problems that hindered an attempt to gather the squad in Florida for training. Gomez was the only player who completely missed out on the trip.
Few team leaders in this tournament will have the challenge he faces: to pull together a squad that has been buffeted by organizational failures and separated from its captain at perhaps the most crucial stage of its preparations.
How they got here: Won the Caribbean zone qualifying tournament.
Expected to…Go home early
Poor preparations plus a schedule that is book-ended by a rivalry game against Jamaica and a seemingly inevitable loss to the US suggests T&T will not get the chance to either build momentum or finish strong.
Wildest Dream: Tickets to New Zealand
It could happen. After Mexico and the US, the gap between the next-best five or six teams is not so great. Trinidad and Tobago does not appear up to the standard required to challenge the Championship’s favorites, but it just a needs a few good days against the rest of the field to make it into top four of the tournament.
Group Stage Schedule:
1/9 – vs. Guatemala
1/11 – vs. Panama
1/14 – vs. Aruba
1/18 – vs. Jamaica
1/21 – vs. Trinidad and Tobago
The United States has never won this particular tournament. In fairness, for five competitions – between 1998 and 2007 – no team “won” the CONCACAF U-20 Championship: it was merely a mechanism for U-20 World Cup qualification. But the US did not win any of the 16 editions prior to the “no winner” era; since the Championship reverted to allowing a champion in 2009, the US hasn’t won the competition either.
The team hasn’t lacked for talent in recent years – the 2009, 2011 and 2013 squads each contained their share of players who have subsequently emerged as upper-echelon pros in the US player pool. Two runner-up finishes over those three tournaments suggests the U-20 program has figured out what is required to compete at this level, but it hasn’t quite had the necessary combination of good fortune and better play to lift the trophy. Yet.
The 2015 edition has an encouraging air of professionalism about it that might prove to be the missing ingredient from the US’s U-20 recipes to date. The 2009 squad had eight players who were still in college at the time of the tournament; the 2011 iteration had four; the 2013 brought six. In 2015, the US U-20 team has just one player actively involved in NCAA soccer (and one unattached).
And the team’s young pros are spread across an impressive array of clubs: Bundesliga’s Borussia Dortmund, Hoffenheim and Freiburg; England’s Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland and Fulham; Norwegian champs Molde; Liga MX’s Club Tijuana; as well as the expected smattering of MLS sides.
Head coach Tab Ramos has been preparing a core group of players since the beginning of December, when he called 10 guys who weren’t on active club duty into fitness training. The team appears about as well prepared as it is possible to be at this level (age-group sides generally suffer from infrequent match-scheduling and erratic availability of players – Ramos appears to have confronted these problems about as well as anyone might expect).
Another second-place finish almost has to be the minimum expectation of this squad.
Key Player: Kellyn Acosta
Not the most highly-rated player in the squad, but he has been named captain. His versatility – he can play in midfield or defense – is important in a competition that only allows a roster of 20 players, and where that versatility is deployed will determine which of the US’s surplus of young stars has to settle for a place on the bench.
How they got here: Qualified automatically
Expected to…Win the Championship
Every player in the squad looks a potential starter for any other team in the tournament with the exception of Mexico: that is title-winning strength in depth.
Wildest Dream: Win the Championship by beating Mexico
Few things are more satisfying to a US soccer team than beating Mexico. The only way to achieve that in this tournament and claim the title is by beating Mexico in the final – which is exactly the script the US team would write for itself.
Predicted Group A final standings
4. Trinidad and Tobago
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OTF’s Austin Fido is a citizen of CONCACAF and a football fan. Follow him @canetop.