Alex Zendejas - FC Dallas - Chases the ball
USA Today Sports

FIFA U-17 World Cup Preview: US, Mexico youngsters chase glory

THE BASICS
The US, Mexico and 22 other nations will compete in the 16th edition of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, held in Chile from Oct. 17-Nov. 8, 2015.

Open to players born 1998 or later, the tournament is held every two years and can be both a showcase for some of the world’s most touted young players and a coming-out party for those who enter with relatively little fanfare.

HISTORY
The tournament began in 1985 as a U-16 championship, and African nations have won a surprising six of the 15 titles, including Nigeria taking their record fourth championship two years ago.

US OUTLOOK
US schedule: Oct. 17 vs. Nigeria, Oct. 20 vs. Croatia, Oct. 23 at Chile

The US U-17 national team had reached every tournament until missing out in 2013, so their dramatic qualification in March – the US survived a six-round penalty shootout against Jamaica – was a big deal. The roster, selected by coach and three-time MLS Cup champion Richie Williams, includes professionals Alex Zendejas (FC Dallas), Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls II) and Eric Lopez (LA Galaxy II), along with two highly touted attackers in Borussia Dortmund playmaker Christian Pulisic and New York Cosmos forward Haji Wright.

US STORYLINES

  1. Tough Group
    Defending champions Nigeria, talented Europeans Croatia and hosts Chile will not make it easy on the US. That said, the US have beaten Croatia in friendlies and tied Chile, so do not expect the Americans to be intimidated.
     
  2. Who pulls the strings with Pulisic?
    Christian Pulisic is the centerpiece of the US midfield and was one of only three players (with goalkeeper William Pulisic, Christian's cousin, and right back Matt Olosunde) to start every qualifier. But who plays with him in central midfield? In qualifying, Zendejas from FC Dallas and Fulham's Luca de la Torre saw most of the minutes alongside Pulisic in a 4-1-4-1 formation.
     
  3. Experience gap
    Will a more professionally experienced team pay off? Last time around, only 8 players were associated with professional teams; this time, 15 of the 21 are either professionals or in youth systems at professional clubs. Adams, one of the best examples, made 9 starts for the Red Bulls II this year and famously scored against Chelsea in a summer friendly.

MLS PRESENCE
The US roster includes one current MLS professional (Zendejas), two USL professionals for MLS clubs (Adams, Lopez) and five current MLS academy players (LA D Hugo Arellano, ORL wing Pierre da Silva, RSL D Tanner Dieterich, RBNY D Matt Olosunde, PHI D Auston Trusty). Mexico (and former US) GK Abraham Romero plays in the LA Galaxy academy.

For more American connections, Honduras goalkeeper Henry Mashburn is a tri-citizen (Honduras, Peru, US) who plays for Weston FC in Florida. 6-foot-3 New Zealand center back Hunter Ashworth was born in Scottsdale, Arizona, and played two years in the LA Galaxy academy before moving to Pateadores; he is now a freshman starter at the University of San Francisco.

Finally, Brazil backup goalkeeper Gabriel started for Flamengo at the 2014 Generation adidas Cup, where the Brazilian club finished fourth.

US HISTORY AT THE U-17 WORLD CUP
The gold standard for US youth national teams is the one that finished fourth in 1999 in New Zealand, a squad that included DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Bobby Convey, Landon Donovan and Oguchi Onyewu. They remain the only American group to win a knockout-round game; the US reached the quarterfinals in 2003 and 2005 when it was a 16-team event and lost in the Round of 16 in 2007, 2009 and 2011.

The US are a combined 4-7-1 since 2007 and failed to qualify in 2013, so even winning two games in 2015 would be a major accomplishment, especially considering the difficult group.

THE FAVORITES

  • Brazil
    They're still Brazil, but they didn't exactly stroll to the South American championship in Paraguay in March, winning by a single point when co-runners-up Argentina and Ecuador tied on the final day. Nevertheless, Brazil have plenty of talent, led by Ponte Preta forward Leandro; he scored 8 of Brazil’s 18 goals in qualifying. Fellow forward Evander (Vasco da Gama) netted three of his own and has been linked with a move to Barcelona, while midfielders Andrey (Vasco da Gama) and Lincoln (Grêmio) and center backs Ronaldo (Cruzeiro) and Léo Santos (Corinthinas) hold the team steady in the middle.
     
  • France
    France went 5-0-1 and survived a semifinal shootout to claim their second European U-17 crown in Bulgaria in May, and their roster is littered with big-time talents. Paris Saint-Germain forward Odsonne Edouard scored eight goals to lead the tournament, including a hat trick in the final against Germany. Edouard, captain Timothé Cognat (Olympique Lyon) and Red Bull Salzburg defender Dayot Upamecano were joined on the team of the tournament by forwards Jeff Reine-Adélaïde (who made a strong preseason impression for Arsenal after transferring from Lens) and Nanitamo Ikone (PSG). Winger Bilal Boutobba, the youngest player in the history of Olympique Marseille, is another to watch after posting five assists in six games.
     
  • Mexico
    Convincing winners of the CONCACAF U-17 title in Honduras in March with a 4-0-2 record and plus-13 goal differential, Mexico also have a history of success at the U-17 World Cup. They won titles in 2005 (led by current LA Galaxy forward Giovani dos Santos) and 2011 (backstopped by former FC Dallas goalkeeper Richard Sanchez) and reached the final in 2013 before falling to Nigeria. Club América defender Ulises Torres, Pachuca midfielder Pablo López and Morelia forward Claudio Zamudio were among the heroes of Mexico’s qualification campaign.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

  • Australia MF Panos Armenakas (Udinese)
    The left-footed playmaker was born in Newport Beach, California, and has American, Australian and Greek roots. He has played in Europe since the age of 13, first in Watford’s academy and now as a professional with Udinese. Having initially played for Greece, Armenakas accepted a Socceroo call-up after Australia qualified for the U-17 World Cup and debuted for Australia in November 2014.
     
  • South Korea FW Lee Seung-woo (Barcelona)
    Dubbed "The Korean Messi," Lee won the Golden Ball at the 2014 Asian U-16 Championship after producing five goals and four assists. Having trained with Barcelona since age 13, he has been ruled ineligible to play in club games, based on FIFA transfer rules, until his 18th birthday on Jan. 6, 2016.
     
  • France GK Luca Zidane (Real Madrid)
    The son of French legend Zinédine Zidane, who still plays for one of his father’s former clubs, Luca is a goalkeeper with a flair for the dramatic. Most notably, Zidane fils made three saves in a semifinal penalty shootout win over Belgium en route to the 2015 European U-17 title.
Topics: