Qualifying through CONCACAF is never easy. No matter the age level the region always seems to produce a few spoilers and some serious heartache. After having seen their senior side just one year ago fail to make it past the dreaded Hex the United States under-20 team faced an even taller task: an expanded field. But the young Americans showed their mettle getting past the field to claim top honors. This year’s tournament was slightly bit different than what sides had faced in the past. In their continued efforts to give the minnows of the region more experience CONCACAF announced that the tournament would be expanded to 34 teams. The top sides in each of the six groups would then move on to a threeteam two-group second round. The sides that finished first and second out of each group earned an automatic spot in the 2019 U-20 World Cup. The teams finishing at the top of each table facing one on other in the CONCACAF finals.
That produced several fascinating upsets including Panama pulling past Canada in the Group Stage. While the Canadian side did not feature many of their top players, losing to Saint Kitts and Nevis and the Canal Boys will certainly give pause to those who were hoping for a World
Cup run. They weren’t the only side to face some tough competition. Despite being heavy favorites to win the entire tournament Mexico (4-1-0, 13 points) only narrowly squeaked past Jamaica (4-1-0, 13 points) based off of Goal Differential (+29 to +21). While the Reggae Boyz can certainly hang their hats on a solid tournament, they may rue the own goal and penalty drawn in their 2-2 draw with El Tri that halted their chances at all 3 points. Mexico’s (1-1-0, 4 points,+1 GD) luck continued into the second round where they narrowly got past Panama (1-1-0, 4 points, +1 GD) to earn top honors in Group H with Fair Play points coming into play (-1 to -2). Meanwhile in Group G the United States (2-0-0, 6 points) steamrolled the competition going undefeated and not allowing a single goal. The final at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida would see two of the region’s giants do battle in what was expected to be a tight, close affair. But as is the case in football very often what is expected never came to fruition. With a steely determination and a desire to prove the next generation could do better than the last the United States pulled away early and never looked back, downing their neighbors to the South 2-0. Alexis Mendez, a Los Angeles Galaxy product who would go on to move to SC Freiburg days after the tournament, scored twice to give the US the win. For his efforts in the final and his eight goals throughout the tournament Mendez was honored with the Golden Ball and Best XI.
Mendez wasn’t the only American to win individual honors. Goalkeeper Brady Scott was the recipient of the Golden Glove (Koln) while Sergino Dest (Ajax), Chris Gloster (Hanover 96), Mark McKenzie (Philadelphia Union), Brandon Servania (FC Dallas),Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC), and Ulysses Llanez were named to the Best XI. Mexico’s Jose Macias of Chivas won the Golden Boot and was a member of the Best XI along with his El Tri teammates Gilberto Sepulveda (Chivas) and Diego Lainez (America)
While the tournament may be over additional challenges lay ahead for Honduras, Mexico, Panama, and the United States. All four teams will be playing in the 2019 World Cup in Poland and will be aiming to give CONCACAF their first-ever U-20 title. While the road to World Cup glory might be treacherous having run the gauntlet in the region these sides have proven that they can handle anything that is thrown at them.