The CONCACAF U-20 Women’s Championship is set to begin on Thursday in Panama City, Panama, with eight nations all looking to book a place at this year’s FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Japan. However, only three teams, the finalists and third-place match winners, will progress through to the world finals.

Mexico, who finished runners-up at the last edition of this qualifying tournament two years ago, have been drawn alongside Canada, Haiti, and Jamaica in Group A. While in Group B, defending champions USA are poised to face Cuba, Guatemala, and hosts Panama. Two sides will advance from each group to the semi-finals, with the winners at this stage assured a place at Japan 2012 and the losing sides made to battle it out for a third-place ticket.

Canada, Mexico face formidable group  
An experienced Canadian side, with nine players having seen time at senior level, kick-off play in Group A against Haiti. After missing out on the last edition of the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Germany, the Canucks have since appointed new coach Andrew Olivieri to rebuild their charges. With a team built around forward Amelia Pietrangelo, Canada look to be one of the strongest contenders in the pool alongside Mexico. “We have been able to address many of the problems that we might anticipate in the CONCACAF tournament," said Olivieri. "We know that [in Panama] we are going to have to be able to attack and be versatile."

Mexico, who reached the quarter-finals of Germany 2010, boast a backline led by young goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago, who was a member of the squad that reached the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011. At just 17-years-old, Santiago is among five players hungry for success after a heartbreaking exit from contention for this summer’s Women’s Olympic Football Tournament in London with the senior side.

The Mexicans will open the tournament against Jamaica, who enjoyed a fine run in Caribbean qualifying, losing only to Haiti on the road to Panama. While the Reggae Girlz have played in all five editions of this qualifying competition, fellow-group minnows Haiti will be returning to these finals for the first time since its inaugural year in 2002. But despite their long-term absence from qualifying, the Haitians could well prove to be the dark horses in Group A with a strong presence between the sticks in the form of 17-year-old keeper Cynthia Cheny Immaculee.

USA eye regional repeat
In the other pool, defending continental champions USA are surely favourites to stage a repeat, having notably just swept the Four Nations Tournament in January with victories over Switzerland, Germany and Norway. The Americans arrive in Panama City, with an eclectic mix of youth and experience, among them up-and-coming forward Lindsay Horan and striker Maya Hayes. However, all has not been rosy for the Stars and Stripes and they enter the competition with a shock quarter-finals exit to Nigeria at Germany 2010 still hanging over their heads.

“The most important thing for us is that our players are developing,” said USA coach Steve Swanson. Obviously we want to qualify and then win the World Cup, but it's very important that we develop the players in our programme and help them get to the next level. That's always been a challenge in our county, dealing with expectations and the pressures that go along with that, sometimes at the expense of good technique, good understanding of the game and good development of the game. We have to be careful of that and be mindful of the fact that we are dealing with young players that have a lot to learn. Certainly at this level you have to compete to win, but there are priorities: I think their development is more important.

Obviously we want to qualify and then win the World Cup, but it's very important that we develop the players in our programme and help them get to the next level.  

Steve Swanson, USA coach

“We are coming off some quality performances in Spain against three teams that have already qualified for the Finals in Japan, which has given us some confidence.”

While USA open their qualifying campaign against Guatemala, hosts Panama will be ready to assert their authority early on when they face Cuba. The Panamanians have recorded just one win in three outings at this championship, but with a formidable attacking duo in Marta Cox and Angela Evans have the potential to spring a surprise on home soil.

Completing the opposition in Group B are Cuba and Guatemala, both of whom have never qualified for the global showpiece. The Cubans have yet to secure a win in each of their two appearances at the regional championship. However, with marked improvement defensively, along with the likes of midfielder Rachael Paleaz directing play, Cuba could certainly pull off a shock in the group. Guatemala, on the other hand, are led by forward Maria Monterroso, daughter of coach Benjamin Monterroso, and with just one previous appearance at these regional finals as hosts in 2010 have a stiff test ahead.