FIFA 2015 U-20 World Cup draw is (relatively) kind to CONCACAF

One of the more elegant trophies in the FIFA cabinet (fifa.com)

Trophy seeks like-minded partner for long walks on the beach (fifa.com)

Austin Fido has a look at how CONCACAF’s teams fared in the FIFA 2015 U-20 World Cup draw…

CONCACAF’s four qualifiers for FIFA’s 2015 U-20 World Cup have learned a little more about the path they’ll have to follow  if one of them is to become the first team from this region to win the tournament.

The group stage draw is complete. The competition is still several months away, and the relative strength of each group will be best evaluated based on the actual squads sent to compete in New Zealand – but here’s a snap judgement of each CONCACAF team’s group based on the scant evidence afforded by history and qualifying path.

GROUP A: USA, Myanmar, New Zealand and Ukraine

Not a bad draw at all for the Stars and Stripes if history is any guide. Host nation New Zealand qualified automatically for the tournament, and will doubtless be boosted by home support. But U-20 soccer isn’t generally a huge draw in any country, so atmospheres may not be all that intimidating for the host’s opponents at this competition.

Also, New Zealand has been to three U-20 World Cups (all since 2007) and never won a game.

Myanmar will arrive at the tournament as one of two nations never before represented at this competition (the other is Fiji; Serbia is making its first appearance as an independent nation). Myanmar was Asia’s dominant youth team of the 1960s, which makes it a little surprising that this is its first time at the big global tournament. It hosted the 2014 AFC U-19 Championship which qualified Asia’s representatives for this U-20 World Cup, and secured its place in New Zealand by making the semifinals of the AFC competition.

Ukraine is one of the more modest qualifiers from UEFA’s six-team delegation to New Zealand. The 2014 UEFA European U-19 Championship featured eight national sides – and only two of them didn’t qualify for the U-20 World Cup. Ukraine finished third in its group, didn’t make the knockout rounds, but qualified for New Zealand as (effectively) the fifth-best of Europe’s six entrants for the World Cup. Ukraine has been to this tournament on two prior occasions (2001 and 2005), exiting at the round of 16 both times.

This group might be perceived as a “Group of Life” for the US. On paper, it looks more like the Group of Modesty: the (historically winless at this level) host nation, the fifth-best team in UEFA, the fourth-best team in Asia (Myanmar had a worse group stage record than Uzbekistan in the Asian Championship), and the third-best team in CONCACAF.

Group B: Panama, Argentina, Austria, Third-ranked qualifier from CAF

Tough draw for Panama: Argentina enters this World Cup as the CONMEBOL U-20 champions, and is historically the most successful team (six titles; three since 2001) in the U-20 World Cup. The immediate reaction is the other teams in Group B are playing for second place.

Austria was a beaten semi-finalist in the UEFA qualifying tournament; CAF has yet to decide its representatives (the African qualifiers will be decided in March), but its teams are generally competitive at this level.

The second-best team in CONCACAF will do well to be the second-best team in Group B.

Group D: Mexico, Serbia, Uruguay, Second-ranked qualifier from CAF

Winning the CONCACAF U-20 Championship put Mexico among the top seeds in this tournament, meaning it avoids any rival continental champions for the group stage.

Nonetheless, this isn’t an easy draw. Uruguay has a decent record in the U-20 World Cup – it was runner-up in 2013 – and finished third in CONMEBOL’s 2015 U-20 Championship. Serbia was effectively undefeated in the UEFA qualifying tournament (losing a penalty shoot-out in the semifinal to Portugal). And the second-best team in Africa ought to be viewed as a tough opponent.

Group F: Honduras, Fiji, Germany, Uzbekistan

On another forum, this writer ventured the opinion Honduras could have an impact in New Zealand if it got a favorable group draw. Honduras has got a favorable group draw.

Germany is sending the reigning UEFA U-19 champion to this competition – comfortably the group favorite.

But Fiji is in the U-20 World Cup for the first time primarily because it won the first OFC U-20 Championship not to include either Australia or New Zealand – the two teams that have won all but two of Oceania’s U-20 titles since 1974. The Fijians will surprise most observers if they win a point, let alone a game.

Uzbekistan was a quarterfinalist in the 2013 edition of this tournament, and made the semifinals of the 2014 AFC U-19 Championship, so it should not be underestimated. But Honduras should consider itself in with a good shot at making the knockout rounds from a group whose runner-up could simply be the team that loses to Germany by the least goals and beats Fiji by the most.

And Los Catrachos will note the U-20 World Cup advances the four best-ranked third-placed teams of its six groups. Sharing Group F with what will be perceived to be the weakest team in the tournament has to be considered a considerable boost to Honduras’s hopes of making the round of 16.

His name is Wooliam (fifa.com)

His name is Wooliam (fifa.com)

All told, it’s not a terrible draw for CONCACAF’s teams. Panama looks to have the toughest group, but it also looks like one of the best U-20 teams in the region. Similarly, Mexico is a good enough team not to sweat too much over its group stage opponents. In essence, the best U-20 teams in CONCACAF got tougher draws than the talented but flawed US and Honduran squads.

And that bodes rather well for the region: each and every one of its teams has a decent shot at getting out of its group in the U-20 World Cup. No CONCACAF team has ever won FIFA’s top U-20 prize, and none is among the favorites to lift the trophy this summer – but if they can clear the first hurdle as a bloc…well, we’ll see what happens in June.

Until then, since we never got round to posting the wrap-up of the final round of CONCACAF’s U-20 Championship, here’s a reminder of how the region’s top four closed out their march to New Zealand.

CONCACAF U-20 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Guatemala 1-2 Honduras

wikipedia.org

wikipedia.org

wikipedia.org

wikipedia.org

Honduras booked its place in New Zealand with a characteristically (by its standards in the CONCACAF U-20 Championship) uneven performance.

Michaell Chirinos scored one and set up the other as Los Catrachos took a two-goal lead into the last 20 minutes.

Then Diego Alvarez scored one of the better set-piece goals of the tournament, and Guatemala came very close to equalizing in the closing minutes of the match.

The Hondurans will need to lose the habit of allowing opponents back into games if they are to make a compelling run in the U-20 World Cup.

El Salvador 0-2 United States

wikipedia.org

wikipedia.org

wikipedia.org

wikipedia.org

Goalkeeper Zack Steffen was the hero of this match: he saved a second-half penalty that would have brought El Salvador back to level terms after Ben Spencer had opened the scoring for the US in the 37th minute.

The wheels came off the Salvadoran bandwagon after Steffen slowed its roll. Paul Arriola got a second goal for the Yanks in the 68th minute, and Andres Flores picked up a red card that allowed the US to close out the match with a two-goal lead against 10 men.

The big issue for the US in this tournament was a persistent inability to convert ample possession and scoring chances into actual goals. The team will be hoping its ostensibly weak group stage opponents in New Zealand provide it with plenty of opportunity to work on that particular issue.

CONCACAF U-20 Championship Final

Mexico 1-1 Panama: Mexico wins penalty shoot-out 4-2

en.wikipedia.org

en.wikipedia.org

en.wikipedia.org

en.wikipedia.org

No surprise that Mexico won the tournament: it had looked the best team in the Championship from the start. But it was still a heartbreaking result for Panama.

Los Canaleros conceded their first and only goal of the tournament early in the second half, but stayed with El Tri and pulled level thanks to a 73rd-minute penalty. The teams stayed tied through extra-time.

But good fortune from the penalty spot was short-lived: Panama fell behind in the third round of the shoot-out, and Mexico claimed its 13th regional U-20 title.

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OTF’s Austin Fido is @canetop. Follow him.

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