Wilmer Cabrera's side is ready. After nearly two years of training, the United States U-17 squad will travel to Jamaica to compete in the CONCACAF Championship with a spot in this summer's World Cup on the line. The task is simple: Finish in the top two of their three-team group, then prevail in a quarterfinal game.
In preparation for the tournament, Cabrera and the team spent a week in the Caribbean nation, playing the host country in two matches. A draw, a win and a bench-clearing skirmish later, they returned to the States for a final flurry of training.
Cabrera spoke with MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday afternoon — two days before the final roster announcement — about the impending trip, his squad's readiness and the pressure of qualifying.
MLSsoccer.com: You recently returned from a two-game, week-long training trip to Jamaica. How did the team respond down there, and do you think they'll be ready for the qualifying tournament?
Cabrera: I hope. We try to give them the experience that they need and the preparation that they need to perform well. I think at this time today, I'm comfortable with the preparation, the training, the games. Now they are ready. It's on their hands because this is now their turn to perform and demonstrate how they feel and how high their level is.
MLSsoccer.com: Did you notice the team get more comfortable with the surroundings while you were down in Jamaica?
Cabrera: It's really important to experience that. They were there to play Jamaica, to see the people, to see the environment, the weather and to understand how it's going to be. It's not going to be a surprise. They already know; they've already been there. I think it's going to be a plus. If they can perform well and use this experience in a positive way, I think it's going to be good.
MLSsoccer.com: Does the new qualifying format put additional pressure on the team? It makes the quarterfinal do-or-die.
Cabrera: Definitely. It's going to put more pressure on any of those eight teams that qualify for that stage. It's just 90 minutes, or 120 minutes, to go to the World Cup or to go home.
[inline_node:327194]MLSsoccer.com: Eight new guys – Jordan Allen, Zach Carroll, Christian Duarte, AJ Jeffries, Michael King, Fernando Laverde, Jack McBean and Reed Norton – joined the Residency Program for the Spring semester. Allen, Carroll and Duarte played in Jamaica while King and McBean played against Honduras. Who has impressed you the most in a short time?
Cabrera: They are here because they've earned the right to be here. We're trying to give them all the chances and all the opportunities. They knew that it was going to be more difficult for them to adapt and make the roster, but we're trying to work with them to give them all the chances.
If they are ready, they are going to be in the roster. If they aren't ready, we don't want to expose them and put them in a bad situation. We want to protect them as players. It's important at their age that we protect them and give them the best chance to perform on this level individually.
MLSsoccer.com: After the second game in Jamaica, you told a local paper, "They need to be mature enough to deal with the responsibility and the reality that they should be one of the top teams." Is the team mature enough?
Cabrera: They took it well. We played two games against Jamaica. They were tough games. Obviously, it was a little bit rough because it's the environment. They responded well. They reacted well. They showed personality. They showed maturity. That's something that pleased all of us. They felt that, and they're going to be pleased with the maturity that they showed. I think they are ready. We can't do anything else.
MLSsoccer.com: Do you have any individual leaders on the team?
Cabrera: I think the whole group is moving in the same direction. The core group – the guys that have been here for a year-and-a-half or two years – is the top guys. They have some kind of leadership. They lead the club a little bit more than the new ones, which is normal, but they move together. It's not like one is outstanding and the rest pay attention and follow. They are all showing a little bit more leadership individually and that helps the whole team.
MLSsoccer.com: What specific challenges does Cuba present?
Cabrera: We played Cuba two years ago and, most importantly, we need to respect the national team we have in front of us. We need to play serious. We need to play our game and try to show why we're the US national team. We don't know anything about them, but we have to be worried about our performance and our level on the field. We should be able to win and to present a good result. That's my concern. We can't be thinking about Cuba. We have to be thinking about us, and we have to know what we have and how we want to perform individually and collectively.
MLSsoccer.com: The last time most people saw the team was during the Nike Friendlies. Who has improved since then?
Cabrera: I would say all of them. The Nike Friendlies were the first international tournament that we played. The players competing on that level was pretty new for them. They've had three or four months with that experience. I've seen that they've been more mature and they understand a little bit more about competing.
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.