Mexico, Panama, Honduras and USA have booked their tickets to the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015, with El Tri leading the foursome after triumphing at the 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Jamaica. 

Sergio Almaguer’s men captured their third consecutive regional title – their 13th U-20 CONCACAF title overall – by beating Panama 4-2 on penalties after the two sides battled to a 1-1 draw in the final. The title served as icing on the cake for El Tri as both Panama and Mexico, having finished atop Group A and B respectively had already secured a spot at the U-20 World Cup, which will begin in May.

Meanwhile, Honduras edged Central American neighbours Guatemala 2-1 in Saturday’s first play-off, and the Americans then followed suit in their play-off with a 2-0 win over ten-man El Salvador.

Panama perfect in group play
Despite Mexico taking the trophy home, it was Panama who were the only side to escape the group stage with a perfect record. Los Canaleros set the bar high with victories against Aruba, USA, hosts Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala, scoring nine goals and impressively keeping a clean sheet throughout the five-game group stage

Mexico had a stronger goal difference heading into the final, scoring a lofty 18 goals and only conceding three, but the champions slipped up in their final group stage game with a 1-1 draw against Haiti, who finished bottom of Group B. USA had a harder time in Group A than coach Tab Ramos might have initially imagined, and the Stars and Stripes only made it to the play-offs after a 1-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago in their fifth and final group stage match.

Guatemala took advantage of USA’s victory against T&T and secured third place in Group A despite losing to group leaders Panama 1-0 in their final group stage game. Honduras and El Salvador had a fairly straightforward path to the play-offs, finishing second and third respectively behind Mexico, with Cuba the closest competitors for a play-off spot, but still four points behind the mark. 

Gonzalez’s goalkeeping heroics
Guillermo Martinez put Mexico ahead in the final in the 50th minute, heading in from a corner kick, but Panama equalised from the penalty spot 22 minutes later when Fidel Escobar fired past goalkeeper Jose Gonzalez.

Gonzalez redeemed himself in the penalty shootout, however, saving Panama’s final two attempts to give Mexico the 4-2 win. Mexico were perfect from the spot as Martinez, Alejandro Diaz, Erick Aguirre and Jose Robles successfully converted for El Tri.

Ben Spencer and Paul Arriola scored on either side of half-time to give the Americans their 2-0 win over El Salvador and ticket to New Zealand. However, the game could have been much closer had Jose Villavicencio buried his penalty, which would have levelled matters, but USA goalkeeper Zack Steffen did well to push the ball wide. El Salvador finished the match a man short for the final ten minutes after Andres Flores was sent off, all but sealing the win for the Americans.

Honduras’ 2-1 win over Guatemala sends Los Catrachos to the U-20 World Cup for the first time since 2009. Guatemala were given an early boost when goalkeeper Nicholas Hagen saved Bryan Rochez’s 17th-minute penalty, but Honduras took the lead shortly thereafter through Michaell Chirinos.

Honduras doubled their lead after half-time from Alberth Elis’ tap in, set up by Chirinos. Guatemala were given a late lifeline after Diego Alvarez’s delightful free-kick from 35 yards cut Honduras’ lead in half. The Guatemalans nearly equalised deep into stoppage time, but Carlos Estrada’s header missed just wide.

The four CONCACAF sides heading to the U-20 World Cup, particularly USA and Honduras, can breathe a sigh of relief having punched their tickets to New Zealand, though they will now continue to train in earnest with their sights set on the final in Auckland on 20 June.