On Sunday, the US Under-17 national team begin their upward trek toward this year’s World Cup in Panama with the U-17 CONCACAF Championship. And in the meantime, Canada are looking to get back to that stage for the third time in four years after missing out in 2015.
There’s a temptation to simply assume this road will be easy for the continent’s three big dogs in Mexico, the US and Canada. All things considered, CONCACAF is less developed on the youth level than most other continental associations. There’s some truth to that, but history is a hard teacher if you’re willing enough to listen. Especially when it shifts.
It’s true the US U-17 team has only failed to get through this tournament once with a World Cup ticket in hand, but that wasn’t so long ago, in 2013. And a cycle later, despite the benefit of a generational talent in Christian Pulisic (below with US U-17s), the U-17s needed a penalty shootout in a playoff against Jamaica just to qualify for the 2015 U-17 World Cup after failing to win their group. There’s no denying the road’s narrowed.
Times are different. CONCACAF closed the gap, and Canada’s been part of that growth. The Canadian U-17 team missed every World Cup for more than a decade before qualifying in 2011. On balance, they have the talent to return.
Among the three groups in Panama, two of the top four advance into two groups of three in the final classification stage. Among those two three-team groups, the top two in each advance to the World Cup.
The wealth of talent in the tournament is no surprise to the players and coaches gearing up for the U-17 CONCACAF Championship, which commences on Friday and, for the US, on Sunday against Jamaica. Let’s go under the hood and take a peek at exactly what awaits the US and Canada specifically in this tournament.
How will the US fare?
This competition has been markedly difficult for the US over the last two cycles, and while they should expect some turbulence again in 2017, they shouldn’t struggle to qualify.
Under coach John Hackworth’s tutelage, the US have been a thresher in this cycle. In 2016 they became the first American team since 1992 to win the prestigious Montaigu tournament in France, and later that year they cut through Brazil, Turkey and Portugal to win the Nike International Friendlies in a series of blowouts. The US don’t just have the talent to qualify. They have the talent to win this tournament.
Mexico, as per usual, will be the favorite, but the US get an early test against El Tri in the second group game. A rejiggering of the seeding format allowed the US and Mexico to be paired up in a group for the first time in this competition’s history, and the two haven’t even played a competitive continental match against one another since 1996. In their only meeting this cycle, Mexico beat the US U-17 team 6-3, albeit in Mexico City.
They will face El Salvador and Jamaica in the other two group games, and they will need to finish higher than both nations to advance to the World Cup.
The US have a booming arsenal of attacking players in guys like Atlanta United FC’s Andrew Carleton and Toronto FC academy product Ayo Akinola, but the defense is less certain. This team played 33 games in 2016 and recorded clean sheets in just 11 of them. They might get into a couple shootouts, especially against Mexico, but rest assured, this team should have little trouble qualifying. It’s about as deep a U-17 team as the US have ever fielded.
What about Canada?
The Canadians have more than a puncher’s chance in this tournament, and that’s partially down to the favorable seeding that helped them avoid both Mexico and the US in the group phase. They are in a group with CONCACAF giants Costa Rica and minnows in Cuba and Suriname.
The likelihood is that Canada will get either Mexico or the US in the classification stage, depending on where they finish, but they’ll merely need to beat that third team – probably either host Panama or Honduras – to qualify. And that’s doable.
Unlike the US team, the Canadian U-17 side coach Paul Stalteri is bringing to Panama doesn’t have any first-team MLSers in it yet, but there’s talent enough here to make its group sweat. The headliner is Toronto FC academy’s Luca Petrasso, who will wear the No. 10 kit in Panama. Petrasso is fresh off the 2017 Generation adidas Cup and will more or less run the show for Canada.
He highlights an obvious truth about this team, and that’s the primacy of the TFC academy within the Canadian youth national team system at the moment. Of the 20 Canadians at this tournament, 11 hail from the TFC academy, compared with four from Vancouver (Michael Baldisimo, pictured above, Jake Ruby, Alessandro Hojabrpour and Jose Hernandez) and one from Montreal (Yohan Le Bourhis). In any case, expect Canada to be competitive and reach their third U-17 World Cup since the essential reboot of the program in 2011.
Four MLS players to watch
DF James Sands, New York City FC (USA)
NYCFC fans who perhaps haven’t watched young Patrick Vieira protege James Sands operate on the U-17 level might be surprised to see where he lines up. Vieira seems to think Sands is a defensive midfielder, and he’s drawn rave reviews in time there during preseason and in training for the Bronx club. That’s not idle praise, of course, but for the majority of this two-year cycle he’s largely been a center back for Hackworth, and that’s likely where he’ll play in Panama as a vital starter. Sands seems to be on the cusp of a Homegrown deal with NYCFC, which has yet to sign one, and a big string of performances with the U-17 team might just be the final point Sands needed to make.
MF Andrew Carleton, Atlanta United (USA)
You could gauge the preseason excitement in Atlanta over Andrew Carleton in gasps. With every highlight of Carleton’s that escaped preseason, his hype only grew, but that has yet to translate to Atlanta United coach Tata Martino’s first team. Carleton’s found first team playing time scarce this season along Atlanta United’s stacked attacking front, and the U-17 CONCACAF tourney could be just the thing to put his star back into orbit. Expect Carleton to spend the tourney as the left winger in Hackworth’s attack-minded 4-3-3. Beyond that? Fireworks.
MF Luca Petrasso, Toronto FC (Canada)
The Canadian international should find his solid string of form serves him well in Panama. As part of TFC’s lauded Generation adidas Cup team, Petrasso starred for TFC in Frisco, Texas and even bagged a goal in the tournament. He also scored a PK in an eventual win over Estudiantes de la Plata, and he enters this tournament as Canada’s attacking fulcrum. As Petrasso goes, Canada go, so keep an eye out for his influence on the field. If he’s into the flow of the match, Canada should enjoy their soccer in Central America.
DF Allexon Saravia, D.C. United (El Salvador)
The Washington, D.C. region's Salvadoran population is no small thing, and D.C. United’s young player base reflects that. El Salvador are actually toting two D.C. United-based players to this tournament, including Saravia and Ronald Cerritos, the son of the former MLS stalwart of the same name. Saravia, though, has been an important part of the current D.C. United U-16 setup as a ball-stopping center back who can also double as a defensive midfielder in a pinch. It’d be a surprise to see him on the bench for El Salvador in this tournament. The US should get an up-close look, too. El Salvador and the US match wits in the group stage on April 29.
As always, it’s hard to avoid Mexico as the favorite here. The Mexicans have won this tournament a record six times, including each of the last two, and they bring a typically loaded group to Panama. But they should get a stern test from the US in the group stage, and I’d expect both the US and Mexico to advance out of the group and then qualify out of different final groups. Canada, I think, has enough about them to qualify as well, and I’ll take host Panama to bring up the rear as the fourth qualifier after narrowly edging Costa Rica.
The fun thing about this tournament? At the U-17 age, almost anything can happen.