Mexico juniors continue to dominate
© EFE

Reigning world champions Mexico kept up their recent domination of the junior age category by claiming the 2013 U-17 CONCACAF crown on Friday night. El Tri collected their fifth regional title with an impressive come-from-behind win in the final against hosts Panama to cap an enthralling performance in the eight-day tournament. Runners-up Panama, Honduras and Canada will join the Mexicans as CONCACAF’s representatives in the showpiece event in the United Arab Emirates in October and November.

The Mexicans, coached by the same Raul Gutierrez who led them to world glory on home soil two years ago, sizzled from the start. They opened their account with a tidy 2-0 win over Honduras before booking top spot in their group with a 5-1 demolition of outgunned Cuba in a game in which the fizzy Luis Hernandez grabbed a clinical brace.

A 2-0 win in their quarter-final over Guatemala was enough to see Mexico into the semi-finals and assured them a place at the U-17 world finals. But they weren’t content just to reach the big show, saving their best form for the home stretch. They beat Honduras for the second time in the tournament, this time 3-1, with an emphatic bicycle-kick from Marco Granados to reach the final.

Back-and-forth final
Played in front of a raucous home crowd at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City, Mexico looked like wilting under the pressure when they went a goal down five minutes after the interval. However, they showed the spirit of true champions, equalising seven minutes later when Panama goalkeeper Jaime De Gracia put the ball into his own net from a corner. With 20 minutes left to go in the game, Mexico sealed the deal – again from a corner – when Salomon Wbias swung his left boot at the ball and planted it into the net from close range.

A quick look at the stats shows just how dominant the Mexicans were throughout the competition, scoring an incredible 15 goals in five games and conceding just three.

Despite their loss in the final, Panama showed they are the fastest improving nation on CONCACAF’s footballing scene, securing their place in a second-straight U-17 world finals with some very lively performances. Coach Jorge Dely Valdes’s men played a sparkling brand of counter-attacking football, full of energy and cool finishing in front of goal. Ervin Zorilla scored three times and looks to be a real rising star in the region.

After finishing first in their group, the Panamanians came from a goal down to beat Trinidad and Tobago 4-2 and book their place in the semi-finals, where they held firm to beat Canada 2-1.

Honduras and Canada will be pleased with their performances. Having reached the semi-finals, both sides are more than capable of pulling off some upsets come kick-off time in UAE later this year. For Canada coach Sean Fleming, who brings his side back to the U-17 showpiece for the second straight time, it was a job well done. "It is a tremendous feeling and you cannot take these moments for granted," Fleming said. "The boys were immense and to qualify for our second-consecutive FIFA U-17 World Cup is a great achievement."
 
Americans miss out for first time
In one of the biggest shocks of the tournament, USA failed to reach the semi-final round. As a result, the Americans – who boast one of the world’s most consistent and organised junior programs – miss out on the U-17 world finals for the first time in the tournament’s history. Coach Richie Williams said he was “very proud” of his players, who came up short in the quarter-final against Honduras after impressively winning their group.

“We all worked really, really hard and put in 100 per cent,” said USA goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell, who conceded three in the USA’s quarter-final loss (3-1). "At the end of the day, we just didn’t get it done. It stinks. We’ll all have learned from this and it’ll make us better players and better individuals. It’s something tough and we’ll have to get stronger and get on with it.”

Mexico, Panama, Honduras and Canada join a growing field of competitors for UAE 2013, which will take place between 17 October and 8 November. So far, Iraq, Iran, Japan, Uzbekistan and UAE (as hosts) have booked their place in the tournament. The rest of the world’s continental qualifying campaigns will take place over the coming months.