Leal scores, Costa Rica claims U-20 World Cup berth
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Randall Leal (#11) celebrates after scoring for host Costa Rica against Panama in the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship on March 3, 2017, in San Jose, Costa Rica. (Photo: Straffon Images)

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- A draw was as good as a win for host Costa Rica, which clinched a berth in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup after playing Panama to a 1-1 stalemate in the classification stage of the 2017 CONCACAF U-20 Championship at the Estadio Nacional on Friday night.
 
The Ticos joined Honduras, the United States and Mexico as teams that will represent the region at the U-20 world championships in the Korea Republic from May 20-June 11.
 
After kicking off the tournament with a 1-0 loss to El Salvador, Los Ticos gained momentum, winning their final two Group C matches to reach the final six teams. They dropped their first Group E match to Honduras, 2-1, but clinched a spot in Korea due to better goal differential than Panama (minus one to minus two). The Panamanians lost to Honduras in its other qualification match, 2-0.
 
Nine minutes into the game, the host side drew first blood as Randall Leal surprised Panama by scoring on a stunning 36-yard free kick from the left side. Javier Rivera ran over the ball and tipped it slightly to Leal, who powered a shot that skipped one bounce past goalkeeper Mario Sequeira into the far right corner for a 1-0 Costa Rican lead. It was Leal's third goal of the tourney.
 
The goal woke up the Panamanian side went on the attack as it could not create a dangerous opportunity on net for the remainder of the half.
 
The Canaleros equalized in the 56th minute, taking advantage of defender Andres Andrade's throw-in from the left side. His long throw bounced twice as Isidoro Hinestroza gained possession and a step on Costa Rican midfielder Esteban Espinoza and scored a spectacular goal, beating keeper at the near post from point-blank range for his first goal of the competition.
 
Since they needed a win to advance to the U-20 World Cup, the Panamanians tried to push up but it could not solve the Costa Rican defense.