The United States’ CONCACAF U-20 Championship didn’t start so well. They lost to Panama in the opener and were 1-0 down to Haiti in their second match, putting them in a deep hole as they tried to qualify for the World Cup. But ever since then, the Americans shone, coming back to beat Haiti, 4-1, and then on Friday, thrashing St. Kitts and Nevis by the same score to advance out of their group.
Now, the Americans are on the verge of qualifying for the U-20 World Cup, which will be played later this year.
The CONCACAF Championship serves as the confederation’s qualifying tournament for the World Cup and it will send four teams to the big tournament. The top two teams from each of the three groups advance to the next round, where they will be put in two groups of three. That’s where the Americans find themselves now, in a group with Mexico and El Salvador, simply needing to be in the top two to book their spot in the World Cup.
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Mexico are the best team in CONCACAF and odds are that they will win the group, but the U.S. don’t need to be better than Mexico. They simply need to top El Salvador, finish second in the group and they’re onto the World Cup. The problem is El Salvador have looked good in this tournament, even beating a rather highly touted Costa Rica side, while the U.S. successes came against weak teams.
That said, with the way the U.S. played in the second half against Haiti and then against St. Kitts and Nevis, they have to be feeling a lot better about their chances to advance. Brooks Lennon caught fire and gave the Americans a real threat up top, while Sebastian Saucedo also got more involved once he was moved centrally. Jonathan Lewis also proved to be a menace to opposing defenses, giving the U.S. plenty of attacking options.
The question for the U.S. is what will they do in defense and how do they manage the midfield. The experiment of Erik Palmer-Brown at defensive midfield has been terrible and the center of the pitch has generally been an adventure.
Qualifying for the U-20 World Cup is the minimum expectation for the U.S. and now all they have to do is top El Salvador to meet that. If they do, people will generally forget their terrible start to the qualifying tournament and judge them based on the World Cup, but they still have to get there. Which U.S. team finishes the tournament — the one that started the group stage or closed it — will determine whether they do.