US Under-20s chase World Cup berth and seek progress at CONCACAF Under-20 Championship

United States under-20 coach Tab Ramos will rely on professional experience and squad depth as the Americans start the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship against Guatemala on Friday (5:30p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2, FOX Soccer 2Go).

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The path toward sweeping success for the U.S. national team starts with more fundamental concerns. It encompasses a comprehensive approach to cultivating and nurturing talent through the entire system. It involves fostering success at every step along the way to create the conditions necessary to thrive at the senior level over the long haul.

United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann reinforced those basic objectives as he contemplated the tasks ahead this year. It is not only about winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup. It is about achieving the necessary success at the youth levels to provide a firm foundation for the challenges to come and underscore the work submitted in Brazil last summer.

"It’s important that we take all the energy, all the enthusiasm coming out of the World Cup in Brazil and take it to another level," Klinsmann told ussoccer.com earlier this month. "2015 is full of big events: there’s a U-17 World Cup, an Under-20 World Cup and obviously the Gold Cup in July that hopefully qualifies us for the Confederations Cup in Russia in 2017. There’s a lot on our plate, but the biggest lesson we can take from 2014 is that we’re catching up with bigger national teams. We’re developing more and more talent, but still we have a way to go." 

The first test of progress arrives at the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship. U.S. under-20 coach Tab Ramos will lead 20 players to Jamaica in a bid to navigate through group play and secure one of the four available berths to the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand in May and June.

It is a gauntlet by any measure. Group play involves five matches over 12 days — including the opener on Friday night against Guatemala (5:30p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2, FOX Soccer 2Go) — in Kingston and Montego Bay. The top finisher in Group A qualifies directly for the World Cup and seals a berth in the final on Jan. 24, while the second- and third-place sides must navigate through the one-off playoff round on the same day.

The revamped format supplies some margin for error if the Americans slip up during the group stage, but the grueling setup places a premium on mental strength and squad depth. Ramos said his charges must embrace the challenges ahead in order to reach a second consecutive FIFA Under-20 World Cup.

"The focal point is knowing that this is the time to suffer for each other now," Ramos told ussoccer.com earlier this week. "We’re a good team, but at the end of the day, no matter what we say about our team — whether we say that maybe this cycle is a little more talented or less than another one — in the end we’re probably going to be involved in all one-goal games. And if we’re willing to suffer for each other, we’re going to get through and we’re going to do things well. And if we’re not we’re going to get run over. CONCACAF competition is always very difficult…Every game is going to be tough from beginning to end."  

Ramos evaluated his options during training camps in Honduras and Florida over the past month and selected a final squad laden with international and professional experience. In a marked shift from previous cycles, 18 of the 20 players are currently on the books with professional clubs. Fulham midfielder Emerson Hyndman lends the experience of his time with the senior team in Czech Republic last September, while other familiar names like captain Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Junior Flores (Borussia Dortmund), Romain Gall (Columbus Crew), Zach Steffen (SC Freiburg) and Tommy Thompson (San Jose Earthquakes) plan to exert their influence over the proceedings.

The shift towards more professional players in this age group reflects the increased options at Ramos’ disposal and strengthens the depth of the squad even with promising FC Utrecht forward Rubio Rubin omitted due to Eredivisie commitments. This team perhaps lacks the top-end talent of some of its predecessors, but it benefits significantly from lessons learned and the platforms provided from those exertions with MLS, Liga MX and European sides.

"I believe this particular group has that part of their development as a strength," Ramos said. "At the same time, I feel we have enough talent in this group, in particular in midfield, where we could have selected a number of different players who could have played those positions, who are all very technical on the ball, who all can chase and cover ground. Overall, I feel this group is stronger than groups in the past from top to bottom." 

This tournament will evaluate Ramos’ assertions and present an opportunity to gauge the strides made during this particular age group. The prospect of a first CONCACAF U-20 Championship title looms as the ultimate achievement, but the primary goal revolves around securing one of those four World Cup berths and testing the core of this squad against the best youth players in the world in a few months’ time.

It is exactly the sort of excursion required to push the entire program forward in the short- and the long-term. The benefits are instant for the players involved, but those potentially enduring effects as some of them advance through the ranks make this tournament particularly important as the program continues to evolve.