By DAN KARELL
After nearly 14 months of friendly matches and training camps, the start of the 2015 CONCACAF Under-20 Championship has arrived.
U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team head coach Tab Ramos has selected one of the strongest teams in U.S. U-20 history to travel with him to Kingston, Jamaica, where the U.S. will battle to earn a place in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup later this year in New Zealand. Amazingly, the U.S. have never won the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, raising the stakes even higher for this year’s crop of players.
18 professionals highlight the squad, including six based in MLS and eight based in Europe, but the team will be tested by the likes of Jamaica, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, and Panama, as well as playing on some difficult surfaces during a stretch of five games in 13 days.
Thanks to a new format, the U.S. can automatically qualify to the U-20 World Cup by finishing at the top of the group, and can advance via a one-game playoff by finishing in either second or third in the group, greatly increasing their chances of making the World Cup for the 14th time.
Here’s a closer look at the U.S. U-20s at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship:
CONCACAF UNDER-20 CHAMPIONSHIP SCHEDULE
5:30 p.m. – FOX Sports 2/FOX Sports Go – USA vs. Guatemala
5:30 p.m. – FOX Sports 2/FOX Sports Go – Panama vs. USA
5:30 p.m. – FOX Sports 2/FOX Sports Go – Aruba vs. USA
8 p.m. – FOX Sports 2/FOX Sports Go – Jamaica vs. USA
5:30 p.m. – FOX Sports 2/FOX Sports Go – USA vs. Trinidad and Tobago
U.S. UNDER-20 MEN’S NATIONAL TEAM ROSTER
(2): Zack Steffen (Freiburg), Ethan Horvath (FK Molde)
The U.S. U-20s may just have the cream of the croup in this tournament when it comes to goalkeepers. In Zack Steffen, the former University of Maryland product who just signed his first pro contract with SC Freiburg in Germany, the U.S. have a bonafide star who combines his size and athleticism to pull off impressive saves one after another.
Although he’ll backup Steffen, Ethan Horvath is a more than serviceable goalkeeper who has been with FK Molde since 2012. Ramos said on Monday that both goalkeepers would be used during the tournament, but it’s a safe bet that Steffen will start the opener on Friday. Ramos even tipped Steffen to potentially start for the U.S. Men’s National Team some day in the future.
“Zack is a very good goalkeeper who has the potential to possibly be ‘the next one’ coming up for the first team,” Ramos told SBI during a phone interview. “Obviously it says a lot that I took him to the last WC already as a younger player and he played a role on that team, although he was a third goalkeeper in theory. I think he’s an excellent goalkeeper and one that I trust.”
(6) Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur), Conor Donovan (N.C. State), Matt Miazga (New York Red Bulls), Shaquell Moore (Unattached), John Requejo (Club Tijuana), Tyler Turner (Orlando City)
Out of this group, recently-turned 17-year-old Cameron Carter-Vickers immediately stands out for his inclusion in the squad. While not surprising necessarily due to his impressive performances for both the U.S. U-20s and U-23s in friendly matches, Carter-Vickers is still two years younger than most of his teammates and it shows to Ramos’ trust in him that he’s been selected. All signs point to him starting alongside New York Red Bulls Homegrown signing Matt Miazga in the opener.
Shaquell Moore, a marauding right back with good vision and left back John Requejo will man the wings, while Tyler Turner and N.C. State’s Conor Donovan, the only college player in the squad, will likely play across the back line when needed. Donovan’s stay in college was a short one though, as he’s joined the 2015 MLS Generation Adidas class.
(7) Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Fernando Arce (Club Tijuana), Russell Canouse (TSG 1899 Hoffenheim), Junior Flores (Borussia Dortmund), Romain Gall (Columbus Crew), Lynden Gooch (Sunderland), Emerson Hyndman (Fulham)
Ramos wasn’t kidding when he said the 2015 class of central midfielders was the deepest position in the squad. From Fulham’s Emerson Hyndman to FC Dallas’ Kellyn Acosta, to Hoffenheim’s Rossell Canouse and Club Tijuana’s Fernando Arce Jr., this is a foursome that are both versatile and adept at playing skilled, possession soccer, and also a more gritty game sometimes needed to win on the road in CONCACAF.
Add in talented Tijuana winger Paul Arriola to the mix, who has been experimented in a central midfield role, and this team shouldn’t see a drop in the talent level from the first game to the last. Junior Flores, Lynden Gooch, and Romain Gall all excel as attacking midfielders and Gall has been in fine form since his move to the Columbus Crew. He led the team in goals scored with four goals in international competitions this year.
(5) Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Bradford Jamieson IV (LA Galaxy), Amando Moreno (Club Tijuana), Ben Spencer (Molde FK), Tommy Thompson (San Jose Earthquakes)
In addition to central midfield, the U.S. U-20s are stacked up top, with plenty of players to pick from. Ben Spencer, once a sure-fire starter, was a late addition to the squad after Joel Soñora pulled out. The hulking 6 foot 5 inch center forward is adept up front but struggled with knee injuries while on loan with Indy Eleven this past season.
Tommy Thompson is one of the most intriguing forwards in the squad and is a player with a high-level of technical ability, and the speed of Amando Moreno and Bradford Jamieson, who has come on of late, can give the U.S. another feature in their attack.
With the new format in CONCACAF youth tournaments, the U.S. U-20s should like their chances to progress to the FIFA Under-20 World Cup.
The U.S. were drawn into Group A along with host nation Jamaica, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, and Guatemala, who the U.S. open up against on Friday. The U.S. missed out on drawing Mexico, Canada, and Honduras, and the new format means that the U.S. has an opportunity to qualify for the World Cup as long as they finish in the top three in the group.
Under the new format, the winners of both groups automatically qualify for the World Cup, and will meet in the CONCACAF U-20 championship match. The nations finishing second and third in each group will then be re-seeded one through four and face off for the last two remaining CONCACAF seeds for the World Cup.
If previous tournaments are anything to learn from, only Panama and Jamaica from Group A made it to the knockout round, with Guatemala, Aruba, and Trinidad and Tobago each failing to qualify for the 2013 CONCACAF U-20 Championships.
A player to watch for on Jamaica is D.C. United Homegrown player Michael Seaton, who could have his chance to shine on a big stage at home to improve his stock heading into the 2015 MLS season.
Panama, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guatemala each feature players currently living in the USA, some at academies and others playing in the college ranks. Some notables are James Madison University’s Francisco Narbon of Panama, FC Dallas academy product Andy Ruiz of Guatemala, and University of South Florida’s Duane Muckette, from Trinidad and Tobago.
What do you think of the USA’s chances in the U-20 Championship? See them winning Group A? Which games are you most looking forward to?
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