Some of the best young players in the Americas gather in Panama this weekend for the start of the 2013 CONCACAF U-17 championship. The 12-team tournament runs from 6-19 April, with games to be played at Panama City’s Estadio Rommel Fernandez and the Estadio Agustin Sanchez in La Chorrera.
Defending world U-17 champions Mexico, whose U-20s were recently crowned champions in the region, will likely be the team to beat. With a pair of world titles at this age category already, the El Tri juniors are the fancied side in their group, a section that also includes Honduras and Cuba.
The Mexicans are coached by Raul Gutierrez, a man who knows something about winning. The FIFA World Cup™ veteran was the coach in 2011 when Mexico, on home soil, picked up their second U-17 world crown with a win in the final against Uruguay at a packed Estadio Azteca. He is now equally motivated to pick up the country’s fifth CONCACAF U-17 title when hostilities get underway this weekend.
His young outfit is brimming with talent, which they displayed in recent wins over the youth team of local side Pumas, but more importantly, and tellingly, in a 4-0 hammering of northern neighbours and arch-rivals USA. As part of a three-team triangular friendly tournament in February, Mexico were in dominant form against the Stars and Stripes. Marco Granados grabbed two goals and Jose Almanza and Alejandro Diaz were in impressive form too, both scoring in what can only be called a comprehensive victory.
While Mexico will be the fancied side in Group D, Panama are the team to watch in Group A. The Canaleros aim to reach their second consecutive U-17 world finals, and significant investment and improvement across the entire structure of football in the Central American country means they will be expected to do so. The passion of the home crowds and familiar atmosphere will likely do them no harm, either.
The home team is coached by former international standout Jorge Luis Dely Valdez, twin brother of senior national team boss Julio, and while they may lack the international and professional profile of Mexico, they have a talented squad with outstanding young players like Kevin Galvan and Luis Zuniga. The Panamanians will be expected to successfully navigate a section that contains Caribbean hopefuls Jamaica and Barbados, whose preparations and readiness are likely to be considerably less than the tournament hosts.
USA are a team not to be taken likely. Drawn into a group with Guatemala and Haiti, the Americans are coached by Richie Williams – a former midfield standout in MLS with DC United and a 20-times capped USA international – and have history on their side. The North Americans are the only nation to qualify for every FIFA U-17 World Cup since the tournament’s establishment back in 1985.
“Everyone’s goal is to get to that World Cup, whether you’re a smaller country like Haiti or a Trinidad or a Guatemala, they’re going to be out there fighting and scrapping and playing their hardest,” said Williams, who is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Tab Ramos, who recently guided USA U-20s to Turkey 2013. “You can’t relax at any moment. You can’t say, ‘if we give up a goal, well it’s OK, we’ll get one back'. We want to go out there with a good defensive mentality and a good offensive mentality.”
The last section, Group B, pits Canada against Trinidad and Tobago and Costa Rica. The Canadians are coached by the experienced Sean Fleming, who is hoping for the best in what looks, on paper, like a manageable group. “We have a very difficult opening match at the CONCACAF Championship against Trinidad and Tobago, so we need to ensure we put forward our best possible performance to start the competition,” said the hopeful boss, who coached Canada at the U-17 world finals in Mexico two years ago.
The top two teams from each group move through to the quarter-finals stage, where the winners reach, not only the semi-final round, but also book their place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, to be staged later this year in the United Arab Emirates.