• Friday Mar 25, 2011

    U-20 championship offers varied opportunities

    Costa Rica will be looking to repeat. The United States will be trying for a double. And Mexico is hoping for some redemption.

    The CONCACAF Under-20 Championship opens Monday in Guatemala City, utilizing the same format as the U-17 tournament in February, when coaches were reminded that the knockout quarterfinals can deny a favorite from qualifying for the World Cup.

    "It's competitive, but sometimes a little unfair," said Costa Rica manager Ronald Gonzalez. "It's a qualifying tournament of three games where the third game is most important as it gives you a chance to go to the World Cup. "

    From the four, three-team first-round groups, two squads will advance from each to the quarterfinals. The winners will qualify for the World Cup, except Guadeloupe. Should the French department reach the semifinals, the team with the most first-round points among the quarterfinal losers will qualify.

    If teams are tied, lots will be drawn.

    At the U-17s in Jamaica, Panama upset Costa Rica in the quarterfinals, and the Young Boyz - who hadn't qualified since 1999 -- rode a home-field advantage over Honduras, which had reached the World Cup in 2007 and 2009.

    "In a one-off game, anything can happen," U.S. coach Thomas Rongen said. "It doesn't change our philosophy. It's a smart way of giving the underdog, in a one-off game, a chance to advance. In U-17s there were upsets: Costa Rica losing to Panama."

    The United States will have Panama and Suriname in its group, while the Mexicans are joined by Caribbean sides Trinidad & Tobago and Cuba. Costa Rica is in a group with Canada and Guadeloupe while the host Guatemalans have Honduras and Jamaica.

    Rongen's charges will be looking to match the achievement of the U-17 counterparts, who beat Canada to win the CONCACAF title earlier this year.

    The Americans lost the U-20 final to Costa Rica in 2009, but this time bring 16 professionals on their 20-man roster, dwindling even further the number of college players Rongen and his predecessors have had to rely on in the past.

    "It's a good amount. It's the way it should be," Rongen said. "Eventually this team should be all pro.
    "It continues the development in general. MLS is making the level better and better. We're seeing the fruits of our labor. More players are overseas. Of tge 16, nine are in Europe. There were three no releases.

    "This is a good trend. Clearly the (U.S.) academy (system), MLS and US Soccer are doing their part."

    The United States has qualified for the World Cup in each of the past seven tries, but it's only title came in 1982, when Honduras was disqualified after winning the final for using an ineligible player.

    Mexico, on the other hand, has won the crown six times, but uncharacteristically lost two of three games in the first round in 2009 and failed to qualify for the World Cup.

    Coach Juan Carlos Chavez, who took over the team a month before the 2009 championship, says he has a different handle on the situation this time around.

    "Of course there is pressure, but they are completely different circumstances," he said. "The last time I had to get to know the players while this time I have had two years with the team and almost 60 international matches. We are completely confident in this group of players."

    Having been eliminated before the knockout round in 2009, Chavez doesn't see much difference in the new tournament format.

    "It's still the same. Before you played three games and the top two teams advanced. Now it's in three games and in the third game is the definitive match in order to make the World Cup," he said. "To me it's the same amount of difficulty as two years ago."

    The United States and Mexico both will be short-handed. The Americans will be without New York Red Bulls forward Juan Agudelo, called for friendlies against Argentina and Paraguay by senior national team coach Bob Bradley, while Mexico will have to do without Erick Torres, Chivas' leading scorer in the Clausura with five goals.

    Costa Rica heads to the tournament with the prestige of being the defending champion and having finished fourth at the 2009 World Cup. But it also goes with the stigma of having made the field only after its qualifying playoff opponent, El Salvador, had to forfeit its matches due to use of an ineligible player.

    "All the competitions are difficult," Gonzalez said. "Despite being chapmions, we have reached this competition due to a situation that everyone knows about.

    "We don't like it..but now that we are here we have a responsibility to defend the title and even more qualify to the World Cup."

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