FOX Soccer Exclusive
Teams gather for U-20 Championships
Twelve countries from across the region have gathered many of their brightest prospects and sent them to Puebla, Mexico to vie for the CONCACAF U-20 Championship this week.
Dreams of a June trip to Turkey for the FIFA U-20 World Cup dance in their heads, but the rewards for success in this tournament do not stop there. The experience garnered in this compressed and tense competition – two group stage games and a winner-take-all quarterfinal for one of the four available World Cup berths, plus the enticement of lifting a title at the end – offers a rare opportunity to prepare for future endeavors within the national team setup.
“I think [the] value is great not only for our players, but for our national team program, to have these players in must-win situations, playing in Mexico and in a difficult environment,” U.S. Under-20 coach Tab Ramos said during a conference call earlier this month. “I think [the value] can only grow [for the] players for what we need [from] them for in the future.”
The tournament provides suitable preparations for the challenges that lay ahead as these players attempt to establish themselves further up the ranks. Each country will bring its own style and its own tactical deportment to the tournament. The diversity among those approaches supplies a reasonable imitation of the rigors presented by competitive matches at the senior level in the CONCACAF region. For many of these players, this two-week spell in Mexico presents an opportunity to accelerate their development and adapt to unfamiliar circumstances.
In stark contrast to their outings with reserve teams and youth academies, these games mean a great deal. Little room for error exists. One mistake during the group stage could prompt a more difficult quarterfinal opponent or a surprising exit at the first hurdle. One slip during the quarterfinals could substitute a rigorous inquisition for a summer excursion to Turkey.
“My main concern is how we’re going to react to the actual games, maybe in difficult situations,” Ramos said. “Every game that goes by, there are times where you need to weather the storm, there are times where the other team is playing better than you are and how we react to those situations is going to be key for us in this tournament.”
Ramos and the Americans understand all too well the pitfalls created by these sorts of competitions. The last US entrant in this tournament crashed out to hosts Guatemala in the quarterfinals in 2011 and watched the World Cup from home. A similar failure for the under-23 side during the group stage of Olympic qualifying last year places a premium on American success in this endeavor, though Ramos – taking charge of his first competitive tournament since replacing veteran boss Thomas Rongen in October 2011 – rejected the notion that his group faces any additional pressure to meet expectations.
Mexico enters the tournament as heavy favorites to lift a record 12th title on home soil (no other country has claimed more than two), but the US is expected to qualify for the World Cup nonetheless. Ramos' concoction of college standouts, foreign-based trainees and MLS prospects boasts the quality and the technique to establish a foothold in matches and produce the necessary results, but the US must answer questions about its defensive solidity and navigate through a tricky Group A (Costa Rica and Haiti) in order to sidestep the problems encountered by a different group in the last edition of this tournament.
“These guys can play,” Ramos said. “They make a good effort on the field and I believe that these are the types of tournaments that we need to see them in. They’re good players. They have a good engine. They make a good effort, and if they can have good tournaments in situations like this, I think that Jürgen [Klinsmann] will take notice, because he will be watching.”
And he will do so with good reason. Klinsmann named nine players with under-20 experience – including fixtures Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey – in his squad for the 2-1 defeat earlier this month.
It is by no means certain that a similar number of players will advance from this group to the full national team or that other national team coaches will profit in a similar fashion, but the prospect of watching these budding talents gain experience in such an intense competition inspires hope that the benefits from this tournament will extend beyond this two-week spell in Mexico.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.
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