CONCACAF 2015 U-20 Championship: Group B Preview
Austin Fido offers a preview of Group B of the 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Championship…
The first part of OTF’s CONCACAF U-20 Championship preview is here.
In Group B, you will find the pre-tournament favorite – Mexico – as well as two of the joint-second best performers in the history of the competition (Canada and Honduras).
Those three teams are the favorites to get out of the group, but Cuba and El Salvador were two of the four CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2013 U-20 World Cup – so their pedigree recommends them to be at least competitive. Nor should Haiti be regarded as easy opposition.
With the caveat that Mexico looks capable of operating on a higher level than any team in the tournament – let alone this group – these six teams could combine to produce a more compelling and evenly-matched competition than their counterparts in Group A.
The group winner makes the final of the tournament against the winner from Group A – and both qualify for the 2015 U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. The second and third placed teams drop into a playoff with their Group A counterparts to select CONCACAF’s other two representatives for the summer’s big tournament for this age-group.
Group B: Canada, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico
Group Stage Schedule:
1/10 – vs. Haiti
1/12 – vs. Mexico
1/15 – vs. El Salvador
1/19 – vs. Cuba
1/22 – vs. Honduras
There was a time when Canada was quite good in this competition: winner in 1986 and 1996, runner-up in 1978 and 1984; throw in back-to-back third-place finishes in 1992 and 1994, and you have a team which sustained elite status at the regional U-20 level for the best part of 20 years (1978 to 1996).
That form persisted into the 2000s, when Canada was a group stage winner in 2001, 2003 and 2005. Since no overall champions were being crowned in this period, Canadian soccer was deprived the chance to really celebrate the talents of successive U-20 classes that finished all three of those tournaments unbeaten.
There hasn’t been much to shout about since. But this year might be different.
All but one of the starters from the team that beat the Americans in November is in the squad for Jamaica. the exception, Dylan Carreiro, was slated to be Canada’s captain for this competition. He was held back by his club, Dundee, at the last minute because it had apparently decided he was ready for first team duties after a loan spell with Arbroath in which he scored five times in 11 appearances.
He will be missed, but there are other tools available to Canada. Arguably its most exciting player – Michael Petrasso -didn’t play in the last win over the US.
The 20-man roster is drawn largely from the three Canadian MLS teams: 12 players are attached to the Vancouver Whitecaps (who have contributed six guys to this group), Montreal Impact or Toronto FC. That speaks to a certain familiarity within the squad, bolstered by preparations such as the Marbella tournament.
This is a team that should add up to more than the sum of its parts, and its parts are pretty good anyway. Forward Cyle Larin will effectively turn pro before this tournament is over: he is expected to be a high pick in the MLS SuperDraft.
Key Player: Michael Petrasso
Petrasso is contracted to a Premier League club, Queens Park Rangers, but the 19-year-old is paying his dues with a succession of loans to lower league teams. The latest, to League One’s Notts County, yielded three goals in 12 appearances over the last three months of 2014.
How they got here: Qualified automatically
Expected to…Qualify for the U-20 World Cup
Coach Rob Gale is right when he says Group B is the tougher side of the draw: there is no rank outsider expected to lose every game, such as Aruba represents in Group A. But this squad ought to consider a top-three finish within its reach. After that, it is just one win away from a summer in New Zealand.
Wildest Dream: Win the tournament
If Canada can beat Mexico, or even tie, it can win the group. And if it can win the group, it can win the tournament. Easier to write than to do, but as their Marbella tournament proved, the Canadians can take on supposedly superior footballing nations and win.
Group Stage Schedule:
1/10 – vs. Mexico
1/12 – vs. Honduras
1/15 – vs. Haiti
1/19 – vs. Canada
1/22 – vs. El Salvador
Before completely writing off Cuba’s chances, since it does appear to be the weakest team in this group on paper, note that this nation placed fourth in the 2013 tournament and qualified for that year’s U-20 World Cup (where it finished bottom of its group).
Cuba finished third in the Caribbean zone qualifying tournament, but was a couple of minutes away from beating Trinidad and Tobago (the eventual Caribbean qualifying winners) before Josiah Trimmingham equalized to nick a draw.
On paper, the third-best team in the Caribbean does not match up favorably with the rest of the group; on the pitch, it will hope to confound those expectations.
Key Player: Frank Lopez
His seven goals in seven games in Caribbean qualifying is a significant part of the reason Cuba is in this tournament.
How they got here: Third-placed team in Caribbean qualifying
Expected to…Bow out at the group stage
They will be considered capable of springing an upset against any opponent in the tournament, but two or three upsets – as would likely be required to get out of the group – seems too much to ask.
Wildest Dream: Get back to the World Cup
Having made the 2013 edition of the U-20’s global showcase, Cuba would surely like to show its first top-four finish in this tournament since 1988 was no fluke.
Group Stage Schedule:
1/10 – vs. Honduras
1/12 – vs. Haiti
1/15 – vs. Canada
1/19 – vs. Mexico
1/22 – vs. Cuba
El Salvador won the second edition of this tournament in 1964, and hasn’t been back to the final since. It did, however, finish third in 2013, and qualify for that year’s U-20 World Cup at which it beat Australia (one of just two wins in the competition for CONCACAF’s representatives; Mexico had the other).
And it was the second-placed team in Central American qualifying for this tournament – though it also hosted the qualifiers, so home advantage undoubtedly played a role in that relative success.
Still, El Salvador beat Panama and drew with Honduras and Guatemala in qualifying, meaning it was unbeaten against all the other Central American qualifiers for the tournament.
Expectations are diminished because those performances came at home, but El Salvador can trouble the presumed better teams in the region.
Key Player: Bryan Tamacas
He has been getting regular minutes for his club, CD FAS, over the last two seasons, a period in which Los Tigres have been among the better sides in El Salvador. Still 19, he has been involved in the U-21 national team, as well as the U-20s.
Tamacas is not a highlight-reel player, but he can play midfield or defense, and is a relatively experienced professional for his age. All eyes will be on El Salvador’s defense, which allowed just six goals in qualifying – of which two were penalties and one was an own goal (scored by Tamacas).
Fewer self-inflicted wounds in this tournament, and perhaps El Salvador can make it to its second consecutive U-20 World Cup.
How they got here: Second in Central American zone qualifying
Expected to…Be difficult opponents
El Salvador performed very creditably against the other Central American qualifiers for this tournament in last summer’s qualifying, and it can be expected to produce similar performances in Jamaica.
It may find it hard to win, but it can make itself difficult to beat.
Wildest Dream: Get out of the group
To finish even third in this group would be an unexpected triumph for La Selecta, since Mexico, Canada and Honduras all look like better equipped squads. Another win over whichever teams emerge from Group A (either Panama, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago would seem the most likely) is an even more unlikely prospect.
Group Stage Schedule:
1/10 – vs. Canada
1/12 – vs. El Salvador
1/15 – vs. Cuba
1/19 – vs. Honduras
1/22 – vs. Mexico
Haiti brought a hammer to Caribbean qualifying, sweeping through two consecutive group stages unbeaten, winning six games out of six by an aggregate score of 25-5. And then slumping to a 3-0 defeat in the final against Trinidad and Tobago.
Haiti’s overall record in this tournament is modest: an infrequent qualifier (this is its seventh appearance in the competition) that has never finished in the top four of the competition.
Eye-catching results in qualifying notwithstanding (10 of those 25 goals came in one game against Turks and Caicos Islands), there is no great reason to believe this Haitian team will outperform its history.
The squad includes a couple of teenage prospects from two of the best teams in France – Paris Saint-Germain’s Stephane Lambese (a defender), and midfielder Bryan Alceus, who is on the books at Girondins de Bordeaux. Both have been getting (limited) minutes for the reserve teams of their respective clubs.
Zachary Heriveaux is a defender in New England Revolution’s academy, and forward Derrick Etienne is a highly-rated prospect in the New York Red Bulls’ youth set-up.
Nor is the team particularly reliant on its foreign legion. Goalkeeper Amos Point-du-Jour and defensive midfielder Benderlin Beaubrun have each received senior national team caps; forward Woodensky Cherenfant is on the senior team’s radar.
This tournament looks more like a chance for individuals to advance their case for inclusion in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, but if the talents in the squad can gel, a surprise or two is not beyond their reach.
Key Player: Stephane Lambese
In March, he got senior national team minutes during Haiti’s historic match against Kosovo – the first FIFA-recognized game contested by a Kosovar national team.
Whether he breaks into the PSG first team or not, it is hoped the young defender will be part of the Haiti squad that attempts to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
How they got here: Second in Caribbean zone qualifying
Expected to…Challenge for fourth in the group
The back-to-back games against Cuba and El Salvador are the most critical part of Haiti’s schedule, as they should reveal which of the three teams is best of the presumptive second tier in the group and therefore most likely to be challenge the assumption that Mexico, Honduras and Canada will represent Group B in the next round.
Wildest Dream: Get out of the group (and beat Trinidad and Tobago to qualify for the U-20 World Cup)
Another team for whom a top-three finish in the group stage would be an unexpected achievement. All the teams in this tournament (with the possible exception of Aruba) can hold out some hope of being in New Zealand in the summer. Haiti surely won’t care too much how they get there, but avenging the Caribbean qualifying defeat to Trinidad and Tobago would perhaps be the sweetest way to get to the World Cup.
Group Stage Schedule:
1/10 – vs. El Salvador
1/12 – vs. Cuba
1/15 – vs. Mexico
1/19 – vs. Haiti
1/22 – vs. Canada
Honduras sent a team to the 2013 U-17 World Cup, and that team made the quarterfinals of the tournament. Six players from that squad have made the U-20 roster for Jamaica: ‘keeper Cristian Hernandez, defenders Kevin Alvarez and Luis Santos, midfielders Devron Garcia and Kevin Lopez, and forward Alberth Elis.
The team finished third in the Central American qualifying tournament, which might be considered a disappointment given its inheritance of the best U-17 squad in Central America from just two years prior.
The primary reason for the slightly underwhelming qualifying performance would appear to be a lack of goals: after losing a shoot-out against Panama (4-3, with each side scoring in the last five minutes), Honduras ground out 1-1 and 0-0 draws against Costa Rica and El Salvador respectively, before sneaking past Guatemala, 1-0.
Beating the region’s minnows – Belize and Nicaragua – was what ultimately got the team to Jamaica; struggling against the rest of the sides in the tournament is what put their qualification (briefly) in doubt.
In Jamaica, Honduras will hope to move past the modest disappointment of qualifying.
The team includes three of the brightest young attacking prospects in the national team set-up: Alberth Elis started to win caps from the senior team in 2014; Bryan Rochez scored 20 goals in 40 league appearances for Real Espana in 2013-14, and followed that with eight goals in 15 appearances this season, before signing for Orlando City Soccer Club in MLS, where he will play alongside Kaka in 2015; Junior Lacayo was scooped up by Liga MX’s Santos Laguna after his debut professional season for Victoria in Honduras, and has been under the radar ever since, but three goals in qualifying for this tournament suggests he is progressing well.
Between them, they amount to one of the most promising attacking trios in this competition, and Honduras only needs one of them to make a name for himself in Jamaica in order to secure U-20 World Cup qualification.
Key Player: Junior Lacayo
He has yet to break into the Santos Laguna first team, and is approaching the age where he may need to move on to be regarded as progressing in line with expectations. If he is to make such a move, a notable performance in this tournament would help his cause.
Lacayo turned pro at 16, and was getting attention from foreign clubs by the time he was 17 (his move to Mexico was preceded by a trial with West Ham United). If he can fulfill the potential he was thought to have about 18 months ago (when he moved to Santos Laguna), this could be his breakout tournament on the regional stage.
How they got here: Third in Central American zone qualifying.
Expected to…Qualify for New Zealand
Anything less than matching the achievements of 2013’s U-17s would surely suggest this cohort is falling behind its regional counterparts.
Wildest Dream: Make the final
To make the final, Honduras will almost certainly have to beat Mexico – and that is almost the equivalent of regional title in itself.
Group Stage Schedule:
1/10 – vs. Cuba
1/12 – vs. Canada
1/15 – vs. Honduras
1/19 – vs. El Salvador
1/22 – vs. Haiti
The defending champion, Mexico, is the tournament favorite, as it is pretty much every time this competition rolls round – such is the burden of being the dominant team in the region at this level.
Mexico has 12 CONCACAF U-20 titles, including the last two; the rest of CONCACAF combined has seven.
Mexico’s success is based on a strong youth development system at the club level. All but one (FC Dallas’s Jesse Gonzalez) of the players in this squad are attached to Liga MX. The team will be expected to win it all, convincingly, in keeping with a roster that includes players already making high-level contributions to top-tier clubs in Mexico.
Hirving Lozano and Erick Gutierrez have both been getting regular appearances for Pachuca this season, in Liga MX and CONCACAF Champions League. Erick Aguirre won’t turn 18 until February, but got 10 starts for Morelia in Liga MX in 2014.
Mexico is the team to beat in this tournament.
Key Player: Hirving Lozano
On his day, he can do special things.
How they got here: Qualified automatically
Expected to…Win – all matches and the tournament
No pressure. But every point dropped will be regarded as a failure, and anything less than the title will make this cohort that rare set of Mexican U-20 players that didn’t win the CONCACAF U-20 championship.
Wildest Dream: Win the U-20 World Cup
The best Mexico can do in the CONCACAF tournament is meet expectations: win every game, win the title. The players who achieve this goal for their country will hope to be rewarded with the opportunity to chase a world title in New Zealand.
Predicted Group B final standings
4. El Salvador
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OTF’s Austin Fido is a citizen of CONCACAF and a football fan. Follow him @canetop.