U-20 USWNT: CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championship Preview

Eight teams. Three tickets to Japan. — That is the CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championship in a nutshell. Yes, there are winner’s medals to be won, but what each of the eight competing teams want more than anything is to earn a trip to the FIFA Women’s Under-20 World Cup in Japan later this year.

Those eight competing teams are Canada, Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, and the United States. One team is the clear favorite: the United States.

But, that was true in 2010 at the Under-17 version of this tournament. In that event, the U-17 USWNT lost in the semifinals to Canada, on penalty spot kicks. And, the third-place match was just a consolation match, as only two spots for that year’s Women’s Under-17 World Cup were available. Six players from that squad are part of this year’s team: Olivia Brannon, Morgan Brian, Bryane Heaberlin, Lindsey Horan, Cari Roccaro, and Abby Smith. If anyone on the USA’s team wants to win this tournament, it is these six.

For the final two qualifying spots, the favorites are the other two North American teams: Canada and Mexico, who along with the United States were automatic qualifiers for the final stage of this tournament.

Canada has only not qualified for the Women’s Under-20 World Cup once. And, that was in 2010, as well. So, they are another team looking to make amends.

Mexico has qualified for the Women’s Under-20/Under-19 World Cup every time that three spots have been allotted to CONCACAF. The one time that they failed to qualify was in 2004, when CONCACAF just had two slots.

The only CONCACAF team outside of North America to earn a ticket to the Women’s Under-20 World Cup is Costa Rica. So, far.

Guatemala, who have at least eight players with senior national team caps, including six players that competed in the recent Olympic qualifying tournament in Vancouver, has a decent shot at pulling an upset. Or, perhaps, the host team, Panama, whose best player may be a fourteen year-old striker with the first name of “Marta.”

Both Guatemala and Panama, have a strong chance of making it to the knock-out stage, as they are in Group B with the USA and Cuba, who has  finished last in their group every time they have made it to the final stage of the tournament (2010, 2008). The USA is a virtual lock for one spot. But, the second spot is up for grabs. And, neither of the remaining teams has advanced out of a final group before, so one of those teams will have two chances at a Cinderella story this year.

Absent the USA falling apart, whoever else advances out of Group B will have to defeat a team from Group A to earn a ticket to Japan. But, Group A has the two other heavy favorites, Canada and Mexico, along with Haiti and Jamaica.

Canada and Mexico both have strong American connections. On Canada’s travel roster, 18 out of 22 players are on NCAA D1 teams. For Mexico, at least 10 of their players are on NCAA D1 teams and probably a majority of their players hold dual USA-Mexico citizenship. These American connections have benefited the teams in the past and will likely continue to do so, this year.

However, quality players is just one ingredient of many that are required for winning. Team chemistry, both on-field and off-field, is another. Both Canada and Mexico have only recently convened their U-20 squads, as they, like the United States, were automatic qualifiers for the final stage of this tournament. However, the United States has a much more active youth system. (For example, this cycle’s U-20 pool and next cycle’s U-20 pool, the current U-18 team, each had at least four camps last year).

Canada called up 22 players for a pre-tournament camp in Costa Rica from February 13th to the 27th. The first since 2010 (based on the lack of news about the U-20 CanWNT).

Mexico just called up 20 players last week. Their first U-20 preparation this year — and the first since 2010, apparently (also based on the lack of relevant press releases) — was in Panama, on Sunday. A handful of U-20 players were even with the senior national team in China earlier this month, in a fairly irrelevant friendly tournament. Irrelevant because Mexico did not qualify for the Olympics, so there was no significant immediate need for any test matches. If Mexico’s U-20 WNT had been in camp, then I would have expected most of the U-20 players on the senior team to stay with the U-20 camp.^

Bare-bones efforts for women’s soccer by national federations is nothing new, but in many cases it does make for a good storyline: For this year’s tournament, could Haiti or Jamaica, or perhaps more likely Guatemala or Panama, be the tortoise to Canada or Mexico’s hare?

^Edit (28-Feb-2012): I forgot to finish my thought for that paragraph. The last sentence did not appear in the original version.

*Edit (01-Mar-2012): It appears that there have been U-20 camps since the last U-20 Women’s World Cup, including one last summer and one in January, based on Tanya Samarzich’s personal website. Although, using Google to search FeMexFut’s website (e.g. “site:femexfut.org.mx tanya” or a broader site search with the terms “sub-20” and “femininil”) still brings up nothing for me about any U-20 WNT training camps.

* * *

The tournament begins Thursday, March 1st, with the first match, Canada versus Haiti, kicking off just after 5:00 p.m. Eastern. All matches should be streamed live on CONCACAF TV (www.concacaftv.premiumtv.co.uk).

I will have more about the tournament this week, and of course, during the tournament.