The Central American nation of Guatemala hosts the cream of the CONCACAF U-17 crop this week. The top three teams of the eight-team field will stamp their tickets for the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, which will be played in Azerbaijan in September and October.
Defending champions Canada will be the team to beat in Group A, a section also featuring hosts Guatemala, Panama and Jamaica. Canuck head coach Bryan Rosenfeld is hoping to reach his second-straight U-17 women’s finals and his team has been engaged in an exhaustive training camp in Canada and the United States in recent months. They are led by captain Ashley Lawrence, who also wore the armband for the Canadians two years ago when they failed to reach the knockout stages at the World Cup in Trinidad and Tobago.
Rosenfeld will be bolstered by his side’s recent two-game friendly sweep of Mexico, winning 1-0 and 2-0 against their neighbours and fellow qualifying hopefuls. “It was a good experience,” said the coach modestly about what are surely heartening wins. Canada have qualified for both previous Women’s U-17 World Cups, a feat the other Group A participants have never achieved. Panama, Jamaica and Guatemala hope for the best, against the odds.
USA will be the side to fear over in Group B, doubly so considering their failure to reach the last U-17 tournament in Trinidad and Tobago after having reached the final of the inaugural competition in New Zealand in 2008. The Americans have not tasted defeat this year and look to be peaking at just the right time.
Even though they failed to qualify for Trinidad and Tobago 2010, the Americans outscored their opponents in qualifying for that tournament by an astounding 38-0. Current head coach Albertin Montoya will want more of the same, but with a different outcome, this time around.
“We feel we are at a very good place right now going into World Cup qualifying,” said Montoya on the eve of the competition, where his side will likely be tested by Mexico, who reached the World Cup in 2010. “The team has made a lot of progress in our last three camps, which have been very productive in helping us prepare to head to Guatemala. We’ve had talented players since the beginning of the cycle, but the difference now is the ability of these talented players to play as a team, which makes us very dangerous."
The three other teams in Group B are Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago (who both failed to progress from the group stage of the World Cup two years ago) and the Bahamas, who have never qualified for any FIFA finals in any age, gender or discipline.
The tournament kicks off on Wednesday 2 May with the Canadians meeting Panama and the hosts taking on Jamaica. The top two teams from each group will head to the semi-finals. The tournament finalists and third-place match winner will all qualify for Azerbaijan 2012.