USA lead trio to Germany
© AFP

USA sealed their fifth successive trip to a FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup by winning the CONCACAF qualifying competition in Guatemala at the weekend. The two-time world champions will be joined in Germany this July and August by runners-up Mexico and hard-charging debutantes Costa Rica, who edged last year’s regional champions Canada to the last spot.

The Americans, coached by up-and-coming UCLA coach Jill Ellis and led on the pitch by the clinical Sydney Leroux, made relatively easy work of picking up their second U-20 women’s title in North, Central America and the Caribbean. The defending world champions breezed through their group with consecutive wins over Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica in which they scored 12 goals and conceded just one.

In only their first game, Leroux made her mark, scoring a brace in the 6-0 defeat of Jamaica. Two more goals for the Southern California-based ace followed in the 4-0 victory over T&T, and then she got the winner in the final section contest, a 2-1 reverse of arch-rivals Mexico.

Although she failed to score in the semi-final win over Costa Rica, Leroux was back on target in the final, her solitary, 86th-minute effort earning USA victory in a gritty rematch with Mexico. “I was in absolute shock. I was so excited I put my hands in the air and screamed,” said the University of California at Los Angeles star.

“The whole team came over. I guess they didn’t know in the bench and in the stands that it had gone in because it looked like it hit the top of the net, so they didn’t know until I ran around. It was so exciting. I feel the same way I felt at the World Cup when I scored in the final. It’s the same type of excitement.”

The World Cup is a great experience. I know our team is ready for it, but I know we still have a long way to go.
Sydney Leroux after firing USA to regional gold and a place at this year's FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup

Leroux, with a tally of six goals from five games, finished the tournament in Guatemala as top scorer, and the finals in Germany later this year will be her second FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup appearance. She was a member of the US team that edged Korea DPR last time out at Chile 2008, picking up the adidas Golden Ball and adidas Golden Shoe as the competition’s best player and top scorer respectively.

“I wouldn’t have six goals if it wasn’t for the rest of the team," she reflected modestly. "It’s awesome but at the same time, if anyone else had scored six goals I would have felt just as happy for her as I do now.

“The World Cup is a great experience. I know our team is ready for it, but I know we still have a long way to go. I have so much belief in my team and I’m so excited to go the distance with them.”

Duo clinch German adventure
Mexico, despite the disappointment of losing out in the decider, will be pleased with their place in Germany, which will be their fourth appearance at a global U-20 showpiece. Led by prolific forward Charlyn Corral, they progressed from the group phase having lost only to the US, before beating Canada 1-0 in their semi-final. Corral finished with two goals in four games and her side will head to the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup hoping to advance from the group stage for the first time in their history.

The third and final side to reach the world U-20 finals were Costa Rica. With a slick short-passing game, the young Central Americans took the competition, which was staged close to home in Guatemala City, by storm.

After winning twice and losing once in the group stage, they stretched USA in their semi-final before eventually losing 2-1. Up against defending regional champions Canada in the decisive match for third place, though, Las Ticas showed no lack of confidence, Katherine Alvarado’s goal sealing the deal in the 19th minute to send them through and force the 2002 runners-up to miss out on the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup for the first time since the tournament’s inception eight years ago.

“We are young team with lots of 1992-born players (that will still be eligible in two years)," said Canada captain Chelsea Stewart. "Hopefully this group will use the loss as motivation for another CONCACAF championship and FIFA World Cup qualification in 2012."