When the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup kicks off on Sunday, hosts Mexico will battle Korea DPR in front of an expected 40,000 at Estadio Morelos. However, Colombia, Nigeria, Spain and Switzerland will all be missing from the proceedings. This wouldn't be a big deal, except they were the four semifinalists two years ago. Thus is the chaotic nature of the U-17 world.
Despite the unpredictability of the age group, most of the best soccer-playing countries made it to Mexico for the 2011 version of the competition. Germany, England, Brazil and Argentina join El Tri and the United States (the only squad to reach all 14 events) as the seeded sides. The Netherlands, France, the Czech Republic and Japan could also challenge for a semifinal slot, but so could almost every team, really. The form of the teenagers is so variable at this level that it would be naïve to discount any squad's chances.
One of the best story lines surrounds the four African squads: Burkina Faso, Congo, Ivory Coast and debutant Rwanda. Each team possesses deadly attacking talent, from the Congo’s Mavis Tchibota to Rwanda forward and Arsenal youth Alfred Mugabo. Nigeria made the finals in each of the last two tournaments, and it wouldn't be surprising to see one of their four continent-mates repeat that feat in Mexico.
The Red, White and Blue seek to improve upon a Round of 16 departure in the 2009 tournament. They are a talented group, although they are not as skilled as some past teams. Head coach Wilmer Cabrera generally employs a 4-3-3 formation that is similar to the system played by now ex-US 20 coach Thomas Rongen's side.
Prevailing wisdom states that a team wants to play their most difficult opponent in the first match of group play. The United States got their wish as they start against the Czech Republic in Torreón at Estadio Corona. Earn three points in the opening tilt and the road to the second round becomes clear. Fail to get a result and Cabrera's side will find themselves under much greater pressure against Uzbekistan and New Zealand on June 22 and 25, respectively.
The coach ditched the tandem of Crew Academy product Andrew Souders and Mobi Fehr for the final two matches of the CONCACAF Championship. Fehr remains in the fold — he's the rock of the back line — but Zach Carroll will join him. The duo will have to be solid because outside backs Joe Amon, Nathan Smith and Kellyn Acosta can find themselves caught too far upfield, leaving the occasionally shaky Houston Dynamo Academy 'keeper Fernando Piña alone in the back.
The front six, when working together, can produce magic. Alejandro Guido serves as the playmaker and he could give the Czechs trouble if he is able to find some space. Mario Rodriguez is one of the most physically imposing players in the tournament, but he has a tendency to blow up when things aren't going his way. The LA Galaxy's forward Jack McBean has improved rapidly since joining the full team. He could have a breakout performance in Mexico.
US Key Players
The San Diego-area native makes the US attack go. He has the best vision on the team and is calm with the ball. This is an American side that should control matches against Uzbekistan and New Zealand, with the goals coming through the playmaker.
The winger goes through stints of being extremely dangerous but can also drift around aimlessly for long stretches. He is on the small side, but if Rodriguez can use his quickness and ball skills he can create multiple chances.
He is the best finisher on the US roster, especially with CONCACAF Championship leading scorer Andrew Oliver gone for disciplinary reasons. He can make a difference.
US U-17 Men’s National Team Roster
GOALKEEPERS (3): 21-Wade Hamilton (Arsenal FC; Murrieta, Calif.), 1-Kendall McIntosh (San Jose Earthquakes Academy; Santa Rosa, Calif.), 12-Fernando Piña (Houston Dynamo; Houston)
DEFENDERS (6): 16-Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas Academy; Plano, Texas), 4-Joe Amon (South Carolina United; Summerville, S.C.), 2-Zach Carroll (Vardar; Grand Blanch, Mich.), 6-Mobi Fehr (Tokyo Verdy 1969; Tokyo), 15-Alessandro Mion (Kendall SC; Miami), 3-Nathan Smith (Cal Odyssey; Clovis, Calif.),
MIDFIELDERS (8): 5-Matt Dunn (FC Cologne; Dallas), 10-Alejandro Guido (Aztecs Premier; Chula Vista, Calif.), 13-Nico Melo (Florida Rush; Kissimmee, Fla.), 11-Marc Pelosi (De Anza Force; Sunnyvale, Calif.), 8-Esteban Rodriguez (Cosmos Academy West; Palmdale, Calif.), 14-Tarik Salkicic (Strictly Soccer; Pinellas Park, Fla.), 17-Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids Academy; Brighton, Colo.), 20-Andrew Souders (Crew Soccer Academy; Amherst, Ohio)
FORWARDS (4): 18-Paul Arriola (Arsenal FC; Chula Vista, Calif.), 7-Alfred Koroma (Solar SC; Arlington, Texas), 19-Jack McBean (Los Angeles Galaxy; Newport Beach, Calif.) 9-Mario Rodriguez (Central Aztecs; North Hollywood, Calif.)