Mexico were crowned CONCACAF U-20 champions for the 12th time on Sunday night, beating old rivals USA 3-1 after extra time in front of a capacity home crowd at the Estadio Cuauhtemoc in Puebla. The mighty El Tri will be joined at this summer’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey by the talented Stars and Stripes and debutants El Salvador and Cuba, who both shocked the competition.
The Mexicans, who hosted the CONCACAF qualifying competition for Turkey 2013, opened the scoring after only four minutes of the final via outstanding striker Jesus Corona, but the Americans pulled level when midfield creator Benji Joya struck from the spot. A game of heavy tension, and one played at a high tempo, was finally decided by a player accustomed to being the hero in a Mexico jersey. Ten minutes into extra time, substitute Julio Gomez, pulled off a sensational overhead-kick to break the deadlock and lead the way to victory. It was almost identical to his extra-time winner against Germany in the semi-final of the FIFA U-17 World Cup two years ago on home soil, a tournament the Mexicans went on to win.
Mexico, two-time U-17 World Champions, are a leading light in junior and youth football, and their run to the final in Puebla was nothing short of straightforward. Corona scored twice in their opener, a 3-0 win over tournament new-boys Curacao. They then repeated the scoreline in their second contest, beating El Salvador with ease and getting goals from Gomez and Julio Escoboza to book easy passage to the quarter-finals.
They didn’t falter in their all-or-nothing last-eight meeting against Jamaica either, the hosts mauling the Caribbean hopefuls 4-0. Marco Bueno, another of the core Mexican stars who won the 2011 world U-17 title, grabbed his first goal of the campaign. It was more of the same in the semi-final as the Mexicans beat El Salvador for a second time, with Antonio Briseno, yet another veteran of the U-17 world-beating campaign of 2011, grabbing both goals and Mexico completing a run of four games, over 360 minutes of football, without conceding a goal.
Ramos inspires lively US
The Americans’ run to the final was not as impressive as Mexico’s, but it turned heads nevertheless. Coached by three-time FIFA World Cup™ veteran Tab Ramos, the US stumbled in their first group game, battling to beat an inspired Haitian side 2-1. Led by the midfield creativity of Benji Joya, who plays his club football in Mexico for Santos Laguna, the Americans also scraped by in their second contest, edging Costa Rica by a slim 1-0 scoreline thanks to a well-taken goal from LA Galaxy attacker Jose Villareal.
Up against familiar opposition in neighbours Canada in the make-or-break quarter-final round, the American attack finally clicked into high gear. Villareal scored a pair of goals in a come-from-behind 4-2 win that put the US through to the World Cup. Ramos’ youngsters then booked their place in the final with a simple 2-0 win over Cuba. “This is what we’ve been trying to do for a year and a half now,” goal hero Villareal said. “So we’re happy, we’re proud of each other and how we played as a team.” Midfield sensation Luis Gil was equally effusive about the Americans’ reaching Turkey. “It’s a great feeling,” he said.
While Mexico and USA were expected to reach the big show in Turkey, the two other qualifiers from the CONCACAF zone were outright shocks. Cuba and El Salvador upset the formbook by reaching the semi-finals and booking first-ever appearances at the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Cuba, El Salvador shock
El Salvador opened their account with a 2-1 win over Curacao, enough to put them in the quarter-finals behind Mexico. In the must-win clash against Panama, who finished top of their section with a pair of wins, the Salvadorans were spot on. Jairo Henriquez scored twice in a 3-1 win, in which goalkeeper Rolando Morales proved himself one of the top net-minders in the competition.
Cuba were no less impressive in their unlikely run to the semis. They won their group with a pair of victories over Canada and Nicaragua, before dispatching fancied Costa Rica in their quarter-final to book passage. Arichel Hernandez was the man of the moment for the Cubans, scoring both goals in the game. “It’s a dream for us to go to Turkey because there is an awful lot of competition at this level,” the country’s FA President Luis Hernandez told FIFA.com, unfazed by a loss in the third-place play-off to the Salvadorans.
The four CONCACAF combatants join a growing cast of global qualifiers for the U-20 finals, which take place across seven Turkish venues between 21 June and 13 July. Australia, Iraq, Korea Republic and Uzbekistan will represent Asia, while Croatia, France, Portugal, England, Greece and Spain carry the standard from the European zone. Neither Brazil nor Argentina have qualified from CONMEBOL, with Chile, Paraguay, Colombia and Uruguay representing South America. Turkey qualified automatically as hosts while the African and Oceanian teams are yet to be known.