When USA lined up at the Marvin Lee stadium in Macoya, Trinidad for Sunday's CONCACAF U-20 Championship final, they had not yet conceded a goal. However, the prohibitive favourites were put to the sword 3-0 by a talented Costa Rican outfit, who had attacking spice to match their own defensive assurance as they took top honours in the region. The beaten Americans can, however, take consolation in the fact that they will join the Ticos - who won their first regional U-20 crown since 1988 - along with third place finishers Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago, at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt, to be played September and October.
The Costa Ricans, who conceded only one goal and picked up seven points in their three group games, saw off Honduras in the semi-final before taking on the Americans, who strolled through their three group contests and won a shoot-out against tricky hosts Trinidad and Tobago in the semi without conceding a single goal. Inspired by the fine play of Josue Martinez, Marcos Urena and David Guzman, the Costa Ricans grabbed their first goal of the final through the lively Diego Alonso Estrada in the 41st minute. It was the first conceded by the US since 2007 and they were just two minutes shy of breaking a 36-year-old record of 630 minutes played without conceding in the region, held by Mexico. Martinez added two more in the second half as Thomas Rongen's USA seemed to come apart.
For Costa Rica it was just as much as they deserved, having looked an exciting and talented crop from the outset of the nine-day competition staged in Bacolet and Macoya. The Central Americans finished top of their group after opening with a shock 1-0 defeat of favourites Mexico, who never recovered and dropped out of contention. Ronald Gonzalez's men then pulled off a creditable 0-0 draw with the hosts before securing top spot in the section with a 2-1 win over Canada to guarantee their place in Egypt (all four semi-finalists qualified automatically for the world youth finals). They looked no less effective in their semi-final. Having only conceded one goal in their first three games, they kept another clean sheet against a strong Honduran side, eventually winning a penalty shoot-out 4-2.
Sturdy at the back, the Ticos showed off their attacking instincts in the final, pushing out of their shell to collect a convincing win over an American outfit that, despite scoring five goals in the first round, could not find the net when it was really needed.
No substitute for goals
Veteran coach Thomas Rongen assembled a sturdy USA side, and their form in the first round was nothing short of astonishing. A 3-0 win against Jamaica was followed by a goalless draw with Honduras and a 2-0 win over El Salvador. They managed to hold Trinidad, with some impressive performers in the likes of Juma Clarence and Uriah Bentick, goalless in their semi-final before winning out on penalties, goalkeeper Brian Perk saving twice.
"It was a total team performance. I can't say enough about my defence, I have to give them all the credit," said the UCLA keeper after the semi-final win. "We got through it together and I'm just really proud of all the guys. We're ecstatic about going to Egypt."
In the end it was the Ticos' ability to turn on the style that separated them from the rest of the competition, and sets them up as possible spoilers in their sixth U-20 finals in Egypt. They will be keen to improved on their first-round exit last time out at Canada 2007 as the USA - CONCACAF-best 12-time participants at the world U-20 showpiece - aim to at least equal their run to the quarter-finals last time out.
Trinidad and Tobago, who finished fourth after losing to a last-minute Honduras goal in the match for third place, will be taking part in only their second U-20 finals, previously lining up at Portugal 1991. Honduras will be making a fifth appearance, and their first since a disastrous outing at Netherlands 2005, where they conceded 15 goals and failed to score in three games.