Four tickets up for grabs in CONCACAF

The FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic field is starting to take shape, with 16 of 24 teams having secured qualification, and attention now turns to the CONCACAF U-20 Championship Costa Rica 2017. From 17 February to 5 March when 12 nations will be in pursuit of four World Cup spots, where eight of the 12 qualified via regional tournaments, while Canada, hosts Costa Rica, Mexico and USA were automatically included.

The teams will be split into three groups of four. The top two squads in each group will advance to the Classification Stage, which will consist of two groups of three teams. The top two sides from each group of the Classification Stage will book their tickets for the U-20 World Cup, with the group winners meeting in the final on Sunday 5 March.

All eyes will be on holders Mexico, who will be looking to build on their record 13 titles in the competition’s history. To put that achievement into perspective, the next most successful nations in the tournament’s history have won it twice (Canada, Costa Rica and Honduras). Mexico coach Marco Antonio Ruiz will be bringing a squad focused and prepared having spent the majority of 2016 playing in preparation matches, including tours in Bahrain and China PR. The Tricolores open their tournament against Antigua.

Honduras and Canada will raise the curtain earlier in the day in Group A in the same venue at the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa. Honduras will be boosted by their recent 3-2 come-from-behind victory over Costa Rica in a friendly. The Canadians are hoping to qualify for the U-20 World Cup for the first time since 2007, when they hosted the tournament. That will not come easy, though, as Rob Gale’s team are competing in what could be labelled the ‘Group of Death’. Aside from the obvious challenge Mexico poses, Honduras come into the tournament as central American champions and Antigua as runners-up in the Caribbean.

Led by former USA national team midfielder Tab Ramos, the Stars and Stripes will be the favourites in Group B. Ramos and USA got to the quarter-finals at the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand in 2015, only to lose on penalties to eventual champions Serbia. Ramos will be looking to captain Eric Palmer-Brown for leadership, as the centre back is the only USA player to have played at a U-20 World Cup before.

USA open the tournament against Panama, who are undergoing a transition at an inopportune time, as Leonardo Pipino, who led Los Canaleros to a second-place finish in 2015, left as head coach last week. Caribbean champions Haiti are looking to reach their maiden U-20 World Cup and the Grenadiers will be hoping Ronaldo Damus can bring the goals. Damus scored eight goals in Caribbean qualifying for Haiti. Their first match in Costa Rica will be against the Sugar Boyz of St. Kitts and Nevis, who will be eager to make the most of the opportunity, as they return to the CONCACAF U-20 Championship for the first time since 2007. Tahir Hanley will be one to watch, as the forward has already made a senior team appearance for the Sugar Boyz.

Hosts Costa Rica are aiming to return to the U-20 World Cup for the first time since 2011, when John Jairo Ruiz and Joel Campbell lit it up for Los Ticos. As for head coach Brian Williams and Trinidad and Tobago, they are gunning for a third U-20 World Cup in the nation’s history (1991 and 2009). Bermuda return to the tournament for the first time since 1992 following their third-place finish in Caribbean qualifying. If the Gombey Warriors can come close to replicating the nation’s performance in 1980 when they got to the quarter-finals, it would signify a major step in the right direction for the development of the game in the country. El Salvador last won the competition in 1964 and have one U-20 World Cup appearance (2013) to show for, with their crowning achievement being a group stage win over Australia at Turkey 2013.

The groups A: Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Antigua and Barbuda B: USA, Panama, Haiti, St. Kitts and Nevis C: Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador, Bermuda

The stat** 22 — **USA have never won the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in 22 attempts. The Stars and Stripes finished runners-up in 2009 and 2013. Will this be their year?

Did you know? The CONCACAF U-20 Championship is the second oldest tournament in the region. Mexico won the inaugural competition in Panama in 1962.