Led by world-renowned prodigy Freddy Adu and a stable of full professional stars from the domestic top flight Major League Soccer and abroad, the United States will be considered hot favourites to take the laurels when North, Central American and Caribbean zone FIFA U-20 World Cup qualifying kicks off in Panama on 17 January.
But with hosts Panama led by one of the country's all-time greats in player-turned-coach Julio Dely Valdes, Guatemala always a power in Central American circles and Haiti brimming with Caribbean style and technical improvisation, the Americans will do well to beware as they look to become the first CONCACAF team to qualify for six consecutive FIFA U-20 World Cups at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City.
The top two finishers from Group A in Panama will qualify automatically for this summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada . They will be joined by the top two finishers from next month's Group B in Mexico, which will see the fancied hosts take on Costa Rica, St. Kitts and Nevis and Jamaica. As hosts, Canada qualify automatically for the competition and round out the first five-team field of CONCACAF competitors at any FIFA finals.
The USA are led by Thomas Rongen in the technical area. The one-time MLS Coach of the Year with the now-defunct Miami Fusion and former DC United and New England Revolution coach is no stranger to the world of US U-20 football. In 2003, in the United Arab Emirates , it was the Dutch-born boss who led the Americans - and a then-14-year-old Freddy Adu - to within seconds of a semi-final spot. The Bobby Convey-led side only lost out in the dying moments of the quarter-final to South American powers Argentina in Abu Dhabi.
With nine full professional players in the side, Rongen is excited by the upswing in quality since his last stint in charge. "The level of quality is much higher in this cycle than in the past," he said. "I believe we have what it takes to get the job done down in Panama, in what will assuredly be a tricky qualifying tournament away from home."
Josmer Altidore of the New York Red Bulls and the Columbus Crew's Danny Szetela - who made his name for the USA at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Finland in 2003 - will be key figures in the team alongside Adu who, despite being the third-youngest player in the squad at only 17, was named by Rongen as captain citing his, "unique leadership abilities and superb qualities on and off the pitch."
Unlike the United States, Guatemala had to pre-qualify for the festivities in Panama. As hosts of UNCAF Group One they roared past Belize and El Salvador to book their place in the final round of qualifying. Former Costa Rican international and Olympic coach Rodrigo Kenton will lead the Chapines from the technical area and the boss will be hoping to get the Guatemalans off on the right foot in what will be their first appearance at a final round of regional U-20 qualifying since 2002.
Despite a slow last few cycles, the Guatemalans have an admirable record in reaching the final rounds, having participated in 17 of 20 instalments since 1962. Despite this achievement, they have yet to qualify for a FIFA U-20 World Cup. Kenton and co. will be keen to set that dubious distinction to rights this time around.
Traditionally a baseball-mad nation, Panama has been undergoing something of a profound footballing revival in recent years. One name inextricably linked to this upswing in fortunes is one Julio Dely Valdes. Aside from being one of the biggest names in the country's footballing history with stints at PSG, Cagliari, Malaga and Real Oviedo, he also helped Panama reach the milestone final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2005 , where they only just lost out to the United States in a penalty shootout at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
Clearly, Canalero fans will be hoping Dely Valdes is a talisman once again as he will be sitting on the bench as head coach of the U-20 side. With home support and the fine play of such standouts as Luis Merono and Erick Tejado, Panama - whose senior side is now coached by Tico tactician Alexandre Guimaraes - will be keen to keep their proud record at U-20 level intact and reach their third consecutive FIFA U-20 world finals (they participated at both UAE 2003 and Netherlands 2005 ).
Caribbean islanders Haiti will be the jokers in the pack in Group A. Known for dazzling native technique, but often time suffering for a lack of organisational coherence, Haiti - whose seniors qualified for the FIFA World Cup in West Germany in 1974 - can either be an amazing outfit or an easy beat.
Which Haiti will show up is never known until the opening whistle blows. However, with wins in pre-qualifying over Bermuda, the Netherlands Antilles and mighty Jamaica, it looks likely to be vintage Haiti on display in Panama. The side have participated in the last three CONCACAF final rounds of U-20 qualifying and coach Claudio Frean will be hoping for the best.
*Group A schedule: * 17.01.2007: Haiti v. USA & Panama v. Guatemala
19.01.2007: USA v. Guatemala & Panama v. Haiti
21.01.2007: Guatemala v. Haiti & Panama v. USA