CONCACAF Under-17s preview: US favorites
All Times US Eastern
Haiti vs. Costa Rica, 12:30 pm
Tuesday, February 15
Barbados vs. Honduras, noon
Jamaica vs. Trinidad and
Wednesday, February 16
Panama vs. Cuba, 3 pm
Canada vs. Barbados, 12:30 pm
Friday, February 18
Costa Rica vs. El Salvador, 12:30 pm
Saturday, February 19
Honduras vs. Canada, 12:30 pm
Jamaica vs. Guatemala, 3
QF1: Group A winner vs. Group B runner-up, noon
QF3: Group D winner vs. Group C runner-up, noon
Friday, February 25
Quarterfinal 1 winner vs.
Quarterfinal 2 winner vs.
Semifinal losers, 4 pm
The CONCACAF Under-17 Championship is set to begin in Montego Bay, Jamaica on Monday. Regional bragging rights are on the line, but the four semifinalists will also receive a more important reward: a trip to this summer's U-17 World Cup in Mexico.
The tournament divides 12 teams into four, three-team groups, with the top two from each advancing to the quarterfinals. Wilmer Cabrera's United States squad should be the favorite, but the do-or-die knockout round phase adds a bit of intrigue to the proceedings.
The host nation Jamaica is prepared to host the tournament, but only barely. Four days before the first game, CONCACAF officials ruled that Trelawny Multi-Purpose Stadium, one of the two venues planning to host matches, was unfit for play because large swaths of the field were missing grass.
The matches, however, will go on. They are all scheduled to be played at the Catherine Hall Sports Complex in Montego Bay while officials search for another option, but visiting squads could struggle with difficult conditions. Supporters of the host nation are hoping to spur their squad on to their first appearance in the World Cup since 1999.
The US have never won the U-17 CONCACAF Championship, but the real goal of the tournament is to qualify for the World Cup. Cabrera's squad should achieve this and could win the entire affair, especially since Mexico are not participating. The 20-man roster features essentially the same group that spent a week during January training in country. During the excursion, they played Jamaica's Young Boyz to a scoreless draw and a 2-1 win.
Cabrera started a 4-5-1 formation during the Nike International Friendlies in December, but adopted a 4-4-2 against Jamaica and in a final prep match with Honduras. Target striker Mario Rodriguez missed the majority of those games with an ankle injury, however, so the coach could bring back the lone striker formation if he's fully healed, as expected. Alejandro Guido will key the attack with Mobi Fehr and Andrew Souders holding down the back line.
The Americans struggled on set pieces during the Nike tournament, but they should be physical enough to man up against their CONCACAF opponents. The squad's biggest weakness is their focus, which wavers occasionally. Rodriguez especially is prone to drift in and out of games and reacts harshly to frequent fouls. That said, anything less than an appearance in the final would be a massive disappointment.
Los Ticos have qualified for the last five U-17 World Cups and should do so again. They easily reached the CONCACAF Championship with an 8-0 victory over Nicaragua – Reimond Salas netted four goals in the second half – and a 2-1 defeat of El Salvador. Costa Rica find themselves pared with los Cuscatlecos and Haiti, two squads they know they can beat after posting a solid 1-0 victory over Jamaica in their final warm-up match.
The Ticos are in Group A, meaning they will cross over to the Red, White and Blue's threesome for the quarterfinal. The nightmare scenario: Costa Rica and the US meet with only the winner going to the World Cup. (Something to consider: The Americans are scheduled to play the last game in Group A and B, meaning they will know exactly what they need. Would Cabrera consider losing on purpose to play El Salvador or Haiti instead of Costa Rica?)
Manager Wendell Downswell feels good about his team after taking them on a six-week training trip through Brazil. Forward Jason Wright found the back of the net frequently, while captain Omar Holness demonstrated his leadership abilities. The squad is playing on its home turf and has the full support of a raucous crowd.
On the other hand, that enthusiasm could be the Young Boyz downfall. These are 16-year-olds, after all. Can they handle the pressure? Will they panic if they go down an early goal in their first match against Trinidad and Tobago? (Costa Rica's tally came in just the second minute, although Downswell was missing Alvas Powell, Patrick Palmer and Kemo Wallace, three of his best defenders.)
In the end, the home side should be able to reach the quarterfinals and will have adjusted to playing at home by that point. They'll ride the crowd and their skill to the World Cup in Mexico.
GROUPS (in projected order of finish)
Group A (Team in bold earn World Cup spots)
Costa Rica, El Salvador, Haiti
USA, Cuba, Panama
Jamaica, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago
Canada, Honduras, Barbados