Four spots at the 2019 Under-17 World Cup are set to be doled out over the 10 days as the Concacaf U-17 Championship kicks off on Wednesday.
The United States are hosting the U-17 event at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The tournament technically began with two rounds of qualifying group stages held back in March and April. The 41 Concacaf teams have been whittled down to 20 ahead of this stage of the competition, with four teams already advanced to the Round of 16: Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.
The rest of the knockout round will be comprised of the top three teams from each group: E, F, G and H. Finishing anywhere in the top three secures advancement into the Round of 16, and the four quarterfinal winners – those games are scheduled for May 12 – will punch their ticket to Brazil. The United States is paired up with Canada in Group H, with Guatemala and Barbados also on the schedule.
US storylines to watch
New coach: Raphael Wicky was hired to lead the program in March, and has all of one camp under his belt before the final preparations. Wicky brings an interesting resume to this age group: The former Switzerland international played a season for Chivas USA in 2008, making just a handful of appearances. Ten years later, after building a reputation for himself as a coach in FC Basel’s youth setup, he took over the FC Basel first team during the 2017-18 season.
End of the residency program: Prior to this year’s Concacaf Championship, the past two decades of U-17 preparation focused on U.S. Soccer’s Bradenton Residency Program, where players lived and trained for the bulk of the year together at IMG Academy. At the end of the 2017 U-17 World Cup cycle, that came to an end, making this an underlying note to track as the team looks to get results on the field.
Style of play: Over the past few cycles, the U.S. U-17 and U-20 teams have played a similar style. Deployed in a 4-3-3, pressing high, looking to turn the ball over high up the field to create chances. This group’s approach shouldn’t be vastly different, particularly given Wicky coming in so late during the cycle. Still, he could introduce a wrinkle or two, so it’s worth watching how this team tries to play and control the game.
MLS academies fuel talented Canadian roster
Canada are looking to make first their first U-17 World Cup appearance since 2011, and 18 members of the team’s 20-player roster hail from one of Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver’s academy setups. There’s plenty of talent on the team, with dangerous attackers like Simon Colyn, Kamron Habibullah (Vancouver Whitecaps), Jayden Nelson and Jacen Russell-Rowe (Toronto) capable of creating problems for the United States in Group F.
While Generation adidas Cup accomplishments are a bit of a different beast, both Toronto FC and the Impact had enough talent to qualify and show well in the Champions Division. The Whitecaps didn’t quite make the top tier, yet were far and away one of the best sides in the Premier Division, as they didn’t concede a goal in the group stage.
Mexico enter as favorites
Winners of the past three editions of this tournament – El Tri defeated the United States in a penalty-kick shootout in the final two years ago – Mexico enter as the favorites simply based off their track record at this age group. They also won the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2011 when they hosted the tournament that year. While every youth cycle is different, the Liga MX academy setup tends to supply enough players to be fairly dominant at U-17 level.
Expect to see a competitive team that’s comfortable under pressure, comprised of a roster based entirely of players from academy sides in Mexico, save for the LA Galaxy’s Efrain Alvarez. El Tri begin their Concacaf Championship journey in Group E against Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and Bermuda, and it’s worth pointing out that due to the format of the draw, the only way the United States and Mexico can play each other would be in the final.
Jayden Nelson, Canada – An electric wide player who can shred defenders in 1v1 situations, Nelson’s ability to create or score goals could be a huge factor as Canada push for a spot in the World Cup.
Efra Alvarez, Mexico – The Galaxy Homegrown made his long-awaited MLS debut earlier this year, coming off the bench and sparking his side to life in his two appearances. Still only 16 years old, he’ll be a driving force for Mexico in the final third, whether it’s as a regular starter or coming off the bench.
Gianluca Busio, United States – Certainly one of the youngest players to really take off during the first two months of the MLS season, Busio’s earned a handful of starts and tallied three goals in seven appearances in 2019. In past camps he’s played both in central midfield and as a wide forward, but no matter where he lines up, the Sporting Kansas City regular's ability to get into dangerous spots is going to be crucial for the US.
Kamron Habibullah, Canada – Similar to his teammate Nelson in terms of his ability to score goals from wide areas, Habibullah enters the Concacaf Championship coming off a strong performance at the GA Cup. His attacking versatility should earn him plenty of minutes down in Florida.
Daniel Leyva, United States – The Golden Ball winner at Generation adidas Cup, Leyva’s a latecomer to this cycle, as he’s 2003 and a year younger than some of his peers. Between his showing at GA Cup and strong 2019 so far, the Seattle Sounders Homegrown is a lock to start for the United States and his ability to connect play through the midfield should be a huge asset.
Simon Colyn, Canada – With players like Habibullah, Nelson, and TFC academy forward Jacen Russell-Rowe leading the line, getting them the ball in dangerous spots is a big part of any success Canada are going to have. Though Colyn’s shown the ability to pop up and score goals, considering the team’s options in the attack, his distribution and vision can open games up and create issues for opposing defenses.