The informative preamble offered by the group stage of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship laid the foundation for the defining moments ahead on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Both group matches provided a chance to avoid disaster and round into form ahead of the critical work ahead this week. In large part, the favorites met those objectives. As expected, Curaçao, Haiti, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico departed after group play. Now the remaining eight sides can train their focus on the prize at hand: a place in the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in June.
Only success at the quarterfinal stage will turn that dream into reality. Victory books the desired trip to Turkey in June. Defeat leaves everyone involved to wonder where it all went wrong. No safety net exists.
The binary nature of success or failure heaps additional importance on the unanticipated meeting between the United States and Canada to open the quarterfinals on Tuesday night. Both sides expected to progress as group winners and sidestep this tricky assignment against a familiar foe, but Canada stumbled to a 2-1 defeat to Cuba in its first match to arrange the tie of the round at Estadio Universitario BUAP.
U.S. coach Tab Ramos can identify with those sort of concerns after watching his side grind through Group A without hitting top form. The opening victory over Haiti lacked the assertiveness and the tidiness in possession required to dispatch an enterprising, yet lesser, side. Matters improved substantially after Ramos made four changes for Friday’s 1-0 victory over Costa Rica, but a lack of creativity and incisiveness in the final third ensured the territorial advantage failed to translate into a more comprehensive statement.
Canada could take advantage of such leniency if the Americans provide it for a second consecutive match. Vancouver striker Caleb Clarke scored twice in a 5-1 victory over Nicaragua on Friday as the Canadians atoned for the stage fright experienced against Cuba. Nick Dasovic’s outfit entered this tournament with lofty ambitions given the ample technical quality within the group, but it must now find some way to replicate the 2-1 victory it registered over the Americans in Marbella, Spain in October.
Clarke scored the winner on that day, but the U.S. will hope to turn to its own influential figures to progress to the semifinals on Wednesday. The onus falls on the likes of Daniel Cuevas (omitted against Costa Rica after picking up a knock in a man-of-the-match performance against Haiti), Luis Gil and Jose Villarreal to drive the American attack and expose the rickety Canadian rearguard. Their quality could supply the difference between the sides if the reconfigured defense holds up under pressure and the revamped midfield mitigates the potential influence of Keven Aleman (surprisingly dropped for the Nicaragua game) and Samuel Piette (scorer of a fantastic goal against the Americans in Spain).
Costa Rica must contend with its own tracking concerns as it prepares to face Cuba in the other quarterfinal on Tuesday. The athletic Cubans – fueled by the lively Maykel Reyes (three goals) – enter the match with plenty of confidence after their early success, but the favored Costa Ricans look ripe for improvement after two drab performances to open the tournament.
Panama will merely hope to stay the course to secure its World Cup berth with a victory over El Salvador on Wednesday night. Arnet Ramirez (top scorer in the tournament with four goals) led the charge in Group C as the Panamanians brushed aside Jamaica and Puerto Rico and scored eight goals in the process. El Salvador must rise to this daunting challenge and stop the potent Panama attack in order to qualify for its first World Cup.
Jamaica enters the final quarterfinal against Mexico with similar designs on a shock, but those hopes appear unlikely to yield any tangible results after the 4-0 defeat to Panama to close Group C play. The home side will attempt to better that mark after coasting through matches against Curaçao and El Salvador to prepare for the knockout round.
Mexico likely won’t encounter any troubles at Estadio Cuauhtemoc when it wraps up the quarterfinals, but the other sides understand the peril involved and the significant stakes in play. The next 90 minutes will determine whether the group stages established the platform required to cinch a trip to Turkey or supplied a false dawn on the way to heartache at the final hurdle. As the Americans would suggest after falling at this stage to Guatemala in 2011, the carefully assembled plans concocted during group play can disappear in an instant.