The USA needed extra-time to get the better of a miserly Canadian outfit in the all-North American final of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Both sides had already stamped their tickets for the global showpiece by reaching the semi-finals and will join third-place finishers Panama and Jamaica in Mexico this June and July.
The Canadians, who will return to the U-17 World Cup for the first time since 1995, rode some stingy defending to the final, conceding no goals in their four games leading up to the grudge match with their neighbours to the south. However, they were helpless against the Americans’ superior strength and perseverance which shone through as they bagged three goals in the extra-time period on Sunday at the Catherine Hall Stadium in Montego Bay in a 3-0 win. Nathan Smith hammered home from distance and Andrew Oliver and Alfred Koroma made the result safe as the Stars and Stripes kept up their enviable record as the only team to qualify for every instalment of the U-17 world finals.
Marc Pelosi was the outstanding player for the Americans, scoring three goals in the tournament to bring his tally for the U-17 national team to nine in 25 appearances. “We came here to prove what we can accomplish and we made it to the World Cup,” said coach Wilmer Cabrera, who used no less than four different line-ups in Jamaica as his team scored 12 goals in their five games and conceded only three. “The kids are strong mentally and physically,” Cabrera continued. Koroma, a goal-scorer in the final, was also pleased to have booked passage to Mexico: “It’s amazing. I can’t even describe it, it’s just the greatest feeling ever.”
For Canadian coach Sean Fleming, achieving a place among the world’s best in Mexico was its own reward. “I am so happy for the players and all their families,” said the coach. “It was a good team effort the whole way and this team has some real great qualities. I couldn’t be more proud of the boys.” If the Canadians can ally a measure of attacking output to their impressive defending and outstanding goalkeeper, Maxime Crépeau, they might well be set to make a mark on proceedings in Mexico this summer.
Also eager to stamp their authority on the world stage this summer is Jorge Dely Valdes's Panama, whose win over Costa Rica in the quarter-finals was one of the shocks of the tournament and saw the Canaleros reach their first-ever U-17 World Cup. Although they were unable to get the better of the Canadians in the semi-final – losing out 1-0 – they stormed back in the third-place play-off to beat Jamaica by the same score for a place on the podium.
The Jamaicans, for their part, were impressive throughout the competition. Backed by their vociferous supporters, they were able to marry impressive native technique with mature tactics imposed by coach Wendell Downswell. “It’s an ecstatic feeling,” said the coach and former Jamaican international, having guided his team to the first U-17 World Cup since 1999. “Full marks to the youngsters as they fought the whole way. I love these fans here and they supported us in a great way for the whole tournament. We just need to focus now on getting better and better as a team.”
The quartet from CONCACAF join a growing field of participants for Mexico 2011, which will run from 18 June to 10 July. Asia will send Korea DPR, Australia, Japan and Uzbekistan while Africa will be represented by Burkina Faso, first-timers Rwanda, Côte d'Ivoire and Congo. New Zealand will bear the standard for Oceania as Europe and South America’s qualifiers are yet to be determined.