USA make the short trip over the Rio Grande to Mexico early next month keeping alive a proud tradition as the only nation to have participated in all 13 instalments of the FIFA U-17 World Cup. But that doesn’t mean current coach Wilmer Cabrera doesn’t have his concerns. The 48-times capped Colombian defender worries about the altitude, the searing summer heat south of the border and his team’s state of readiness ahead of these 14th junior world finals. 

“We went to Mexico for a pair of friendlies against their U-17 national team, who are among the favourites as hosts, and have been traveling all over the world in preparation,” the boss told in a recent interview, speaking frankly about the two losses in late April and early May. “What we learned is that we are not at the level we want to be and we need to work harder.”

The Americans, led by sturdy defender Marc Pelosi and livewire forwards Alfred Koroma and Andrew Oliver, finished champions in the CONCACAF qualifying competition in Jamaica, but Cabrera is well aware of the tough tests to come at the finals which run from 18 June to 10 July across seven venues in Mexico. “Sometimes young men this age have trouble concentrating for 90 minutes. It’s always a problem,” said the former standout with America de Cali, Independiente and Millonarios, who relocated from his native Colombia at the tail-end of his playing days.

“We are working on focus at the moment so that we can minimise the amount of mistakes we make. With the altitude and heat, it will be even more important to make sure we are extra focussed,” added Cabrera, who knows better than most the perils of playing in the thin air from his club and national team days in South America. 

“The ball moves faster up there and it’s difficult to take full breaths. As your body moves more slowly, the ball moves faster. We will try to arrive a few weeks early so that we can adapt,” added Cabrera, who oversees the USA U-17 residency camp in Bradenton, Florida, what he calls "the best soccer school” in the entire country. “Most of the players that will be going to Mexico have been living here in camp in Florida for two full years, playing and training together every day,” he went on. 

Two years ago, the Swiss won the World Cup and now they didn’t even qualify. The boys are excited to go out and do their best, but my job is a bigger one.

Wilmer Cabrera, USA coach.

Glory days of '99
The furthest any USA U-17 team has gone at the junior world finals was the last-four stage, a feat achieved back in 1999 in New Zealand when current senior stalwarts Landon Donovan and Oguchi Onyewu were wide-eyed youngsters standing nervously on the cusp of a bigger world. Cabrera, who has a calm and amiable way about him and takes up the role of friend and teacher for his charges, is more concerned with the big picture than the instant gratification of titles and trophies.

“We are trying to develop players, a pool of players with a chance to reach the senior national team,” he said, casting an eye to the overall development of football in his adoptive country. “We want to play the game the right way. No one knows who will win, but we have as good a chance as anyone. Two years ago, the Swiss won the World Cup and now they didn’t even qualify. The boys are excited to go out and do their best, but my job is a bigger one.”

Cabrera will have no trouble putting himself in the shoes of his young charges ahead of their big days on the world stage in Mexico. Aside from playing in the senior FIFA World Cup™ in 1990 and 1998, the coach - a four-time veteran of the Copa America - also twice took part in FIFA world finals as a teenager.

"I went to two Youth World Cups with Colombia in the 1980s," said Cabrera, who played alongside Rene Higuita at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1985 in the USSR and then again at the 1987 edition in Chile. "This is how I get into their shoes. I remember the feelings I had back then both on and off the field. I can reflect on that experience and use it."