The 2017 CONCACAF U-20 Championship kicks off in Costa Rica on February 17. In the 2015 edition of this tournament, the New York Red Bulls' Matt Miazga played for the USA. By the end of January 2016, he was a Chelsea player. The region's next generation of stars don't all appear at the U-20 tournament, but many of them do - and some, like Miazga, will look back on this competition as the beginning of the year that launched their pro soccer careers.
It's a tournament worth watching, particularly if your club has a player or two involved. As it happens, the Red Bulls do have a current player in this one: Tyler Adams is on the USA's roster. Also, Academy product and NYRB II regular Noah Powder is in the Trinidad and Tobago squad. So more than one reason for RBNY fans to pay some mind to this year's CONCACAF U-20 Championship.
There are 12 teams in the tournament and the top four will qualify for the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup, which will kick off in South Korea on May 20. To make the top four, a team must successfully navigate two group stages.
The first group stage sees the 12-team field divided into three groups of four. The top two from each group will progress to a second group stage.
In the second group stage, the six qualifiers will be divided into two groups of three. The top two from each of those groups qualify for the U-20 World Cup. The winners of the two second-stage groups play each other to determine the CONCACAF U-20 Champion.
The first group stage is perhaps the most significant. Only six of the 12 teams will still be in the tournament after this round. Of the six who get to the next stage, four will move to the 2017 U-20 World Cup. The first cut will be the deepest at this CONCACAF Championship.
Group A: Antigua and Barbuda, Canada, Honduras, Mexico
Mexico is the clear favorite to win this group, not least because Mexico is the clear favorite to win this tournament. El Tri's U-20s have won the last three CONCACAF Championships at this level, and this particular squad includes several players who were part of Mexico's 2015 U-17 CONCACAF Championship-winning squad, and eight members of the starting lineup of the team that lost a 2015 U-17 World Cup semifinal to eventual champion Nigeria.
Honduras doesn't seem to have graduated quite so many of its 2015 U-17 squad to this year's U-20s, but respect is due to the program that finished the 2015 U-17 CONCACAF Championship as runner up - so count the Hondurans as favorites to claim the second ticket out of this group. RBNY fans may be interested to see Douglas Martinez, who trialed with the Red Bulls in 2016 and
had hoped to be part of the club's 2017 season will join the club's USL team, NYRB II, after this tournament.
Canada's squad does not include perhaps its two best-known teenage players: Vancouver Whitecaps' Alphonso Davies and Montreal Impact's Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla. Still, it is a worthy mix of emerging players (mostly) based at clubs in Canada and Europe.
Antigua and Barbuda, surprisingly, swept through two rounds of Caribbean qualification unbeaten, falling only to Haiti in the final of the Caribbean Football Union's 2016 U-20 Championship. Mostly comprised of Antigua-based players, the squad does include a smattering of youth-teamers from high-profile European clubs such as Leicester City and Manchester United. Forward Javorn Stevens was one of the more successful players in the qualifying campaign for this tournament and has recently signed a contract to play for Seattle Sounders 2 in USL.
Group B: Haiti, St. Kitts and Nevis, Panama, USA
It is a mark of the strength and depth of the USA's men's youth program that despite the absence of many of the standouts from the squad that went to the 2015 U-17 World Cup - Matt Olosunde, Christian Pulisic, Joshua Perez, Haji Wright - the Americans are still very heavy favorites to win this group and ultimately advance to the 2017 U-20 World Cup. RBNY's Tyler Adams was young for the U-17 squad in 2015 (which he was on) and he is young for this U-20 squad, but he is thought to have a very good shot at a breakout year and that is largely down to the potential for him to play a big role for the USA at this tournament and the U-20 World Cup.
Haiti ran away with Caribbean qualifying for this tournament, winning five out of six (and drawing the other) games in two group stage rounds and convincingly clinching the Caribbean U-20 title with a 3-0 semifinal win over Bermuda and a 4-0 win over Antigua and Barbuda in the final. Jimmy Sanon just won USL's 2016 Goal of the Year award, and might therefore be the best known Haitian player to American eyes on this competition.
But Haiti has done a good job of progressing a talented U-20 cohort. Ronaldo Damus is a 17-year-old goal scorer who bagged six goals in his team's five final-round games of Caribbean qualifying. Forward Jonel Desire has started to make a case for regular starts for the senior men's national team (and he was one of the top scorers in the 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Championship). Roberto Louima prepped for this tournament with a trial for NYC FC. That attacking trio alone makes Haiti one of the more exciting prospects in the competition.
The last time Panama showed up to a CONCACAF U-20 Championship, it breezed through the 2015 group stage with an unblemished record - five wins out of five and no goals conceded. The squad came up just short in the final, losing to Mexico on penalties after a 1-1 tie. But that team also won its qualifying tournament for the regional championship. This time around, however, Los Canaleros are only here because Guatemala was disqualified. The fourth-best team out of Central American qualifying might well be capable of surprising its opponents in this group. Once A Metro will be duly surprised if it does, not least because head coach Leonardo Pipino abruptly quit the team on February 9.
If you want to know why Jamaica is not in this tournament: St. Kitts and Nevis is the answer. The U-20 Sugar Boyz topped the qualifying group Jamaica was expected to win, and went on to clinch the lucky-loser's spot at this competition out of Caribbean qualifying. Tahir Hanley made a name for himself during the unexpected run to the CONCACAF Championship. Few expected St. Kitts and Nevis to get this far, fewer expect them to get any further - which ought not to deter the Group B underdog.
Group C: Bermuda, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago
Costa Rica is the home team for this tournament, so make Los Ticos favorites to get out of Group C. There are players in the squad - like forward Andy Reyes - who were part of the U-17 selection that made it to the quarterfinals of the 2015 U-17 World Cup. Surprisingly, perhaps the most highly-rated player in the Costa Rican player pool for this age-group, Gerson Torres, did not make the roster for this competition, but head coach Marcelo Herrera essentially said the player's success - which has included senior national team caps and a move to Club America - had effectively prevented him from being integrated into the U-20s. Leaving one of the more admired U-20 players in the region off the team speaks to a confidence in the ability of a talented squad to be more than the sum of its parts.
Eduardo Lara has stepped up from coaching the El Salvador U-20s to the senior national team job, handing over head coaching duties for this tournament to his assistant, Jose Helmer Silva. Lara had hoped to persuade Fiorentina's Joshua Perez - also eligible for USA squad - into the team for this competition, but that plan has not panned out. Still, the Salvadorans were the second-best team in Central American qualifying, and will expect to be better than the Caribbean teams in this group.
Trinidad and Tobago is another team unable to bring its best-known talent at this level to the tournament: AZ's Levi Garcia is not in the squad, and has arguably outgrown the U-20 player pool - he will be expected to continue to feature for T&T's senior men's national team this year. New York Red Bulls Academy product Noah Powder is on the roster, and should see a lot of time on the field, not least because the squad is short on left backs. T&T was the only team Haiti didn't beat in Caribbean qualifying, but it also lost to Bermuda in the third-place playoff of that tournament. The opening game of this group is a re-match for the Caribbean rivals - and will establish which of them can be expected to challenge for a place in the next round.
Given the fact Bermuda finished above Trinidad and Tobago in Caribbean qualifying, it's a little unfair to cast the team as least-likely to get out of Group C - but so it goes. The Gombey Warriors lack the reputation or history in this tournament to be regarded as anything other than makeweights. They will have ample opportunity to prove that perception wrong.
The Classification Stage
After the first group stage comes the second, titled the "classification stage" to avoid confusion and also because it is the stage from which the U-20 World Cup qualifiers will emerge. Two groups of three will see their top two teams secure tickets to South Korea.
There won't be much margin for error in these three-team groups: each team only plays twice. From the USMNT's perspective, the primary concern will be to avoid finishing second in the Group Stage. Second place in Group B will be in a Classification Stage group with the winners of the other two groups. And those winners are expected to be favorite Mexico and home team Costa Rica - the USA does not want to be playing its way out of such a group to make the World Cup.
If the USA can win Group B, as expected, it should have a somewhat smoother ride through the Classification Stage, playing against the second-placed teams from Groups A and C.
But there will doubtless be surprises in the Group Stage, and they will almost certainly create some surprises for the Classification Stage.