A 16-day football jamboree is about to kick off in Jamaica as the CONCACAF U-20 Championship begins on Friday, with four spots up for grabs at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015.
A change in the format of the tournament has resulted in two sections of six teams playing five group games to begin the competition, whereas previous versions were structured on the basis of four groups of three. Now, the group winners automatically go through, while the second and third-placed teams from each section will square off in two play-offs, the winners of which will also advance to New Zealand.
In previewing the impending action from Jamrock, FIFA.com spoke with USA U-20 coach Tab Ramos to learn more about the impact of the new format on the players, and how it alters preparation for a tournament with at least five games in less than two weeks.
Group A will see the US compete against Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala, hosts Jamaica and Aruba. The other half in Group B includes Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Haiti, Cuba and El Salvador. Finishing atop either group will be no easy task, even for tournament favourites such as USA and Mexico, considering the gruelling match schedule and competition from some of the region's up-and-coming sides.
“It’s very difficult to prepare,” Ramos explained when asked about the new format. “You hope that you have a lot of depth on the team and as the tournament goes on you keep giving minutes to everybody. You have to manage it the best way you can, knowing that you need to get the results as well.”
Panama potential dark horses
In a side that is comprised of mostly professional players, something of which is still a relatively new concept for the Americans at this age level, Ramos will certainly enjoy the benefit of depth within his 20-man squad. Not that it means he will be taking the competition lightly.
“We know that Panama have done really well,” Ramos said of Jose Poyatos’ men. “They cruised through their qualifying in Central America and they were the best team there. On paper you would say that’s our biggest challenge but when you get into competition things can change.
“Panama is our second match of the group, and we play Guatemala two days before. So things can happen quickly. We obviously want to get off to a strong start by winning on Friday first and then we’ll worry about the rest of the teams.”
Panama were indeed impressive in their qualifying run to Jamaica and although their highest-ever finish came in 2011 when they took fourth, 2015 could be the year La Marea Roja spring a surprise on their competition. Meanwhile, in Group B, Mexico, who have 12 regional U-20 titles to their name – 2015 being the 25th edition of this competition in history, making that achievement all the more impressive – will start as favourites.
However, Canada - the third and final automatic qualifier alongside USA and Mexico - and perhaps even El Salvador, who finished second in Central American qualifying, could also challenge for a spot in New Zealand. One notable absentee from this competition is Costa Rica, whose senior team dazzled at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ last summer. Los Ticos missed out on the championship due to Guatemala edging the fellow Central American side in their head-to-head battle, reducing Jafet Soto’s squad to watching the regional tournament from home.
Striking the balance
As Ramos, a former three-time World Cup veteran himself, mentioned, there are unique challenges as a result of the structure of this competition, which changes how he is preparing his team. “With the previous format, you could actually focus on the first week of the tournament,” Ramos said. "In the first week, one of your two group games would be important.
“You could afford to gamble with the other game and then you would still have your crossover game that was your final to qualify for the World Cup, so it was very quick. This way, it’s almost like being in a league.
“So you want to push your team because you want to start fast but at the same time you have to finish the tournament strong because that’s when you may play the important game that gets you to the World Cup.”
And while there is indeed a long way to go and a lot of football to be played before the final CONCACAF sides are selected to represent the region at New Zealand 2015 on 24 January, all nations – from the tiny Caribbean island nations to the stronger North American sides – have a chance to progress. With the next 16 days sure to spring a surprise or two along the way, only time will tell.