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Road to FIFA U-17 World Cup begins

Assistant Coach Richie Williams of the New York Red Bulls looks on
Coach Williams must guide his team to the semis to book a World Cup spot.
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Kyle McCarthy

Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter.

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Visions of DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan will dance in the heads of the latest crop of United States men's under-17 national team players as they prepare to start the CONCACAF U-17 Championship against Haiti (live, FOX Soccer, Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET).

Beasley and Donovan earned their first substantive international experience as members of the United States squad for the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship. Those future national team fixtures and fellow internationals like Kyle Beckerman, Bobby Convey and Oguchi Onyewu served as the driving forces for the Americans' fourth-place finish in New Zealand. Donovan even claimed the Golden Ball in the wake of his impressive displays during the tournament.

Similarly lucrative rewards might await one or two players at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in October, but this 20-man squad must take care of business in Panama over the next fortnight in order to slide into position to secure them.

The task ahead of Richie Williams' side mirrors the qualification gauntlet successfully navigated by Tab Ramos' United States under-20 team in February and March: they must reach the semifinals in order to book a trip to the United Arab Emirates later this year.

It is a task well within the capabilities of this squad given the kind draw in Group C (Guatemala and Haiti) and the lengthy history of success for the US in this age bracket.

Despite its modest exploits on the world stage, the US occupies a lofty perch in this setting: it is the only country to qualify for every edition of the U-17 World Cup (previously known as the U-17 World Championship) since the tournament started in 1985. Any outcome aside from a 15th consecutive berth into the competition would constitute a failure for the program and a setback for this group of developing players.

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Unlike their brethren at the under-20 level, these players have not yet made the transition to the professional ranks. Only five members of the squad are affiliated with academies run by professional clubs. US Soccer fills the void by including them in a residency program in Bradenton, Fla. to hone their skills and lay the foundation for collective success.

Williams culled this group primarily from the candidates in the federation academy setup – Boca Juniors midfielder Joel Soñora is the sole outsider on the squad – to establish continuity. Several friendlies over the past couple of months allowed Williams to experiment with his squad and sort through his potential options before the delegation departed for Panama on Tuesday.

“We feel like we’ve got a great group of guys that have been able to gain great experience at an international level,” Williams said in a press release. “Now it comes down to the most important international tournament, and that’s the qualifying. Obviously this is where it all counts. Either you move on to the World Cup or you come back home. We feel like they’re ready and we’ll go out there and do our best.”

It is perhaps too much to expect a repeat of the 8-0 victory registered over Barbados in the final Bradenton tuneup on Monday when the competitive matches commence. The standards will increase once the tournament starts, but the US must still strive to claim the top spot to avoid a potential quarterfinal date with Group D favorites Mexico.

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In order to sidestep that potential pitfall, the Americans must proceed through the first two matches without deviating from the anticipated course. The journey starts against Haiti on Sunday and then continues with the final group match versus Guatemala on April 11 (live, FOX Soccer, Thursday, 6:30 p.m. ET). If everything proceeds according to plan, then the US will advance as the first-place team in Group C, win its decisive quarterfinal against Cuba, Honduras or Mexico on April 14 (live, FOX Soccer, Sunday, TBD) and seal a spot in the World Cup.

The benefits of a spot on the international stage offer significant motivation to meet the stated objectives in this championship. A good tournament in the UAE could cement a player's status as a prospect to monitor within the youth national team setup or lead to interest from Major League Soccer or a club overseas at the conclusion of the competition. It could also prompt the sort of collective triumph that provides memories for a lifetime, even if a lengthy professional career does not ultimately materialize.

Perhaps most importantly, it also sets the stage for these players to gather valuable experience as they pursue their dreams. There are no guarantees that any of them will compile careers comparable to Beasley or Donovan, but an early dash of success at the regional and the international level at least provides a foundation to build upon as they attempt to meet those standards over the next several years.

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