The United States and Canada have history on their side, but with women's football improving by leaps and bounds in the region it is sure to be a tough test for the perennial powerhouses.

Group A will be contested at Veracruz's Estadio Luis Pirata Fuentes stadium and will pit hoping hosts Mexico alongside defending champions Canada, Central American up-and-comers Panama and islanders Trinidad & Tobago.

Group B consists of the United States, the Reggae Girlz of Jamaica, El Salvador and Surinam and will play out at the Estadio Rafael Murilla Vidal in Cordoba.

The group stage, which runs from 18 to 23 January will see each side play three matches in hopes of reaching the semi-finals on 25 January and the grand finale two days later.  The winner of the semi-final matches will qualify automatically for Russia 2006 and will be joined by the third-place finisher (the third-place match will also be played on the 27th).

The finals in Russia next summer will see the tournament (previously a U-19 event) played for the first time as a U-20 competition and under its new name, the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006.

The contenders
Beginning in Group A, Canada will are fancied to finish top of the group. Teenage sensation and stalwart senior international Kara Lang (veteran of both FIFA U-19 Women's World Championships - '02 and '04 - as well as the FIFA Women's World Cup USA 2003) will bring a level of experience unrivalled among the tournament's other competitors.

Long-time boss Ian Bridge - who as a player participated in Canada's only FIFA World Cup appearance in Mexico in 1986 - is brimming with confidence as his side prepare to defend their title.  And with eleven players in the squad having played at the 2003 U-19 finals in Thailand, who would blame him?

"The excitement surrounding a push towards qualifying is always electric but with that comes loads of pressure to make sure we are there in Russia this summer," Bridge - whose Canadians have never lost a qualifying match at U-19 (now U-20) level, recently remarked.  "But with the players we have available and the experience of this squad, our focus is clearly on gaining one of the three places but if we can win the tournament, it should help us with a favourable seeding this summer."

Hosts Mexico, who have been coming on and on of late in the women's game, will be keen to burst Canada's pretty party balloon.  Led by head coach Leonard Cuellar, the green-clad side will be looking to rebuild after failing to reach Thailand 2004, and will be banking on home-field support to gain an edge.

Panama, though not usually ranked among the region's heavyweights, has been undergoing something of a renaissance of late.  Their senior men recently roared to the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup and an air of football fever has taken over in the country.  As the only Central American side to have taken part in all final round qualifying competitions for the FIFA U-19 (now U-20) competitions, the Canaleras will also have some experience on their side.

Though considered outsiders of the group, Trinidad & Tobago will be hanging their hats on a sumptuous technical ability.  Led by head coach Jamaal Shabazz, they recently ran riot over island counterparts, St Lucia, St Vincent & Grenadines and Grenada to reach the final round of qualifying, and the recent spate of games will hold them in good stead heading into Mexico. Also, with 54 goals so far, the Soca Princesses have scored the most of any team on the road to CONCACAF's final qualifying round.

In Group B, the United States will be hot favourites to secure first place.  Head coach Tim Schulz is quietly confident, but also sure of the fact that work still needs to be done. "It's also very important to begin to bond together and establish that team chemistry," he said. "It's a difficult task for a young team as they are looking over their shoulder and competing for spots on the 18 (squad), but at the same time, developing that chemistry is very important for success." 

The United States, who won the inaugural U-19 finals in Canada in 2002 and finished third last time around in Thailand in 2004, will be relying largely on the experience and savvy of Amy Rodriguez and a host of Thailand 2004 veterans. Despite their status as a top team in the women's game, the USA have yet to finish as CONCACAF champions at youth level and will be keen to set that incongruous statistic to rights.

Jamaica look like the biggest threat to USA's charge in the group. Despite it being their first ever appearance in the final round of qualifying, the islanders are regarded as one of the most technically gifted sides in the region.  Having knocked off Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas and St. Kitts and Nevis in the preliminary rounds, they outscored their opponents 33-0 and have not conceded a goal in 545 minutes of play.

El Salvador will also be playing their first CONCACAF final round competition. The performances of Jose Ricardo Herrera's youngsters in knocking off both Costa Rica and Guatemala in the UNCAF preliminaries will have confidence cautiously high in the camp.

Surinam will be looking to make a mark in their second appearance in the final round regional championship. They managed to push past Anguilla, Dominica and the Netherlands Antilles in an impressive pre-qualifying run and will be hoping to keep the party going. 

Schedule

Group A
Canada
Mexico
Panama
Trinidad and Tobago

1/18 - Canada v. Trinidad & Tobago  - 12:00
1/18 - Mexico v. Panama - 15:00
1/20 - Panama v. Canada - 12:00
1/20 - Mexico v. Trinidad & Tobago - 15:00
1/22 - Trinidad & Tobago v. Panama - 12:00
1/22 - Mexico v. Canada - 15:00

Group B
El Salvador
Jamaica
Surinam
USA

1/19 - El Salvador v. Surinam - 12:00
1/19 - USA v. Jamaica - 14:30
1/21 - Jamaica v. El Salvador - 12:00
1/21 - Surinam v. USA - 14:30
1/23 - Jamaica v. Surinam - 12:00
1/23 - USA vs. El Salvador - 14:30

Semi-finals

1/25 - A1 vs. B2 - 12:00
1/25 - B1 vs. A2 - 15:00

Final

1/27 - Third-place game - 12:00
1/27 - Championship game - 15:00