• Friday Dec 14, 2012

    Londoño has Nicaragua U17s on the move

    SAN MIGUEL PETAPA, Guatemala -- In a tournament at which some of the usual regional favorites have struggled, one of this year's surprises at the 2012 UNCAF Under-17 Championship has been Nicaragua.

    The upstart Nicaraguans have tied two of their first three games, nearly upending host Guatemala and regional power Costa Rica, and putting themselves in position to qualify potentially for the regional championship on the final match day.

    But the team's competitiveness only comes as a surprise to those who haven't been paying attention to Central American football of late. The country that was long the underdog of the region has been improving steadily in recent years, pulling closer to some of its more accomplished neighbors.

    "We know that as a country, Nicaragua is more about baseball than football," said the country's recently installed U-17 coach, Colombian Luis Londoño. "But we also know that with hard work and time things can change.

    "We came here to fight, to try to gain experience, and to get the kids to understand that you have to work and improve constantly."

    To achieve that level of progress, Londoño may be just the man for the job. A 17-year veteran of working with youth development in countries including Ecuador, Argentina, as well as his native Colombia, Londoño has taken the role of leader of a young group that has shown well in Guatemala.

    "Many of the kids come from FIFA's Project Goal, which was founded a few years ago, others from nationwide scouting we've done, and still others have come to us and simply asked for the chance to be seen," said the coach.

    That process, along with Londoño's careful efforts at lending the team shape and discipline, has yielded a squad that plays with order and purpose, as evidenced by holding regional heavyweights Guatemala and Costa Rica scoreless in encounters this week.

    Londoño - who is also the strength trainer for Nicaragua's full national team - says it's all part of a long-term youth development project to which Nicaraguan Football Federation officials have committed.

    "We proposed a project to the Federation in terms of improving the youth ranks. They said 'OK,' and we've been at it for seven months," said the Colombian. "I know we can do still more and the results can get even better."

    The country got a taste of those potential returns just a couple months ago, when Nicaragua shocked host Honduras by beating the Catrachos to a place in next year's CONCACAF Under-20 Championship in Mexico.

    "What the U-20s did in Honduras sets the pace for us," added Londoño. "We want to define a style of play, and the U-20s are right there ahead of us in terms of that, setting the pace."

    As for his U-17s, Londoño says his objectives are even greater than qualifying for the CONCACAF finals, which Nicaragua could do with a win in its closing match on Saturday. The Colombian hopes to take Nicaragua's U-17s to their first ever World Cup next year.

    "My goal is the United Arab Emirates," the coach said. "My short-term goal is Panama (site of the 2013 CONCACAF Under-17 Championship finals). There are still two results we need, and we're hoping to do out part and win, get the three points to be able to advance."

    On Saturday morning at Estadio Julio Armando Cobar, Nicaragua faces already eliminated El Salvador in the opening match of the tournament's final round. A victory would put Londoño's team on five points, temporarily even with Guatemala and one point ahead of Costa Rica pending the final match of the day, between those two squads.

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