The U-17 age group is perhaps of greater interest to scouts than fans. The majority of national team players at this level - certainly in CONCACAF - are not professionals, and not playing regularly in matches watched by anyone other than family, friends, and coaches.
But it is from this level that the next generation of the region's pros, and stars, will emerge. It is still perhaps a little early to know which players from the 2015 edition of this tournament will be significant in CONCACAF and beyond - though Christian Pulisic looks to be on his way to a special career in the game. From the 2013 competition, New York Red Bulls' fans might recognize the names of Junior Flemmings and Evan Louro - players now signed with RBNY's reserve team.
It seems a safe bet the Red Bulls will have eyes on this year's tournament. For a start, they have a player involved: Chris Gloster - assumed to be a starting full-back for the USA - is attached to the RBNY Academy. And the club's recent enthusiasm for young players shows no sign of abating. If anything it is increasing: this year's signings include teenagers Hassan Ndam and Douglas Martinez (who will officially join NYRB II shortly, though he is already with the club); there is a rumor 18-year-old Peruvian Christian Sanchez is on his way to RBNY also; Tyler Adams won't turn 19 until next year, and is currently a first-team starter.
A player or two from this year's regional U-17 championship in the mix of RBNY's next crop of teenage talent would be no surprise at all.
The tournament is hosted by Panama. The opening match - Haiti vs Curacao - is on April 21. The final is May 7. And four of the 12 teams in the competition will qualify for the 2017 U-17 World Cup, to be held in India this October.
This tournament follows the same format as this year's CONCACAF Men's U-20 Championship. The 12 qualified teams are divided into three groups of four. The top two teams from each group progress to the Classification Stage - which will see the six remaining qualifiers divided into two groups of three.
It is from the Classification Stage that CONCACAF's four representatives at the U-17 World Cup will emerge: the top two teams from each of the second-round groups get tickets to India. And the winner of each Classification Stage group moves on to the Final, where the CONCACAF champion will be crowned.
In the U-20 Championship earlier this year, it took a minimum of two wins to get out of the Group Stage. Pressure will be on those teams that lose their opening games, since there are only three shots at getting the six points that should more or less assure a place in the next round. That said, the winner of the CONCACAF Men's U-20 Championship - the USA - lost its first game: this format allows some margin for error.
Group A: Curacao, Haiti, Honduras, Panama
Panama hosted the 2013 U-17 Championship, losing 2-1 to Mexico in the final. That performance followed a third-place finish at the 2011 tournament: the first time Los Canaleros qualified for the U-17 World Cup. After being mostly irrelevant to CONCACAF competition at this level, Panama has emerged as one of the region's U-17 contenders. It has been to two of the last three U-17 World Cups, and will hope to use home advantage in the CONCACAF Championship to qualify again this year.
Like Panama, Honduras didn't have tremendous success at the U-17 level until recently, but it has qualified for four U-17 World Cups since 2007, and was the runner-up at the 2015 CONCACAF U-17 Championship. That cohort has since progressed to clinch the runner-up spot at the 2017 CONCACAF U-20 Championship, so it will be at this year's U-20 World Cup. Los Catrachos were second-best out of Central American qualifying, but that was a curious tournament in which Costa Rica beat all-comers, everyone beat Belize, and three teams (Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua) finished level on points. Honduras owes its place in this tournament to having achieved a better goal difference than Nicaragua in qualifying.
Haiti stormed through Caribbean qualifying: over two group stages, the team won five out of six games (and drew the other), scoring 24 goals and conceding just two. Les Grenadiers went on to beat Curacao 3-1 in the semifinals and Cuba, 5-0, in the final. The squad for this tournament has been in Brazil since November, under the guidance of a Brazilian staff led by head coach Rafael Novaes Dias. There was controversy when the final squad was named and goalkeeper Redondio Alliance - a star of the qualifying rounds - wasn't in it, but Haiti is surely as well prepared as any team in the tournament after (in effect) a six-month residential camp to prepare for it.
Curacao's ambitious men's soccer program has started to make its mark on regional soccer. The senior men's team has qualified for the 2017 Gold Cup, selecting heavily from the nation's mostly Dutch diaspora. The U-17 team isn't able to call on nearly as many players established at pro clubs outside Curacao, but there are a few in the squad attached to youth squads in the Netherlands, including a pair of players - Ayodele Kwidama and Quintin Rustveld - in Feyenoord's youth set-up. Much will be expected of forwards Nathan Bernadina and Shurendric Fransinet (also attached to Dutch clubs), who scored 14 goals between them in qualifying. But Curacao looked one of the weaker teams to emerge from the Caribbean zone and its first challenge will be to demonstrate it has improved since it lost in the semifinals of that qualifying tournament to Haiti - its first opponent in this competition.
Group B: Costa Rica, Canada, Cuba, Suriname
Costa Rica is the third-most successful CONCACAF team at this level, having qualified for nine U-17 World Cups since 1985, including the 2015 edition. And in 1994, Costa Rica was the second (and last) team to break the Mexico-USA CONCACAF U-17 duopoly and win a regional championship. The present cohort breezed through Central American qualifying - winning all four games, scoring 16 goals and conceding none - and will expect to make the Classification Stage, at the very least.
Canada does regularly qualify for U-17 World Cups - it has made six in total, including the 2011 and 2013 editions - and will expect to challenge for a top-four finish in this competition. It opens the CONCACAF Championship with a game against Costa Rica, and the winner of that game will immediately become a favorite to win through to the World Cup in India.
Only four teams have ever won a CONCACAF Men's U-17 regional title: Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, and Cuba. The 1988 regional championship win was part of a brief purple patch for Cuban men's U-17 soccer - it qualified for both the 1989 and 1991 U-17 World Cups - but hasn't been back since. Cuba did look one of the better teams in Caribbean qualifying, winning all seven of its matches up to the tournament's final - when it lost 5-0 to Haiti. Along the way, it beat Suriname: its first opponent in this competition, and a team it will surely need to beat again to stand any chance of making it to the Classification Stage.
Suriname is the lucky-loser entrant to this tournament from Caribbean qualifying. Forward Jenairo Eenig had a memorable qualifying campaign: he scored in four of his team's six matches, and each time his goal was the first of the game. If he and Suriname can turn that tendency to start hot into a win over Cuba in the opening game of this group, maybe they can confound low expectations and make an impact on the competition.
Group C: El Salvador, Jamaica, Mexico, USA
Mexico is the dominant team in CONCACAF at this level: six regional men's U-17 titles; qualified for 12 U-17 World Cups; won the world title twice. Indeed, the last time Mexico didn't win the CONCACAF U-17 title was 2011 - when it was hosting the U-17 World Cup, which it won that year. In recent years, Mexico has made a habit of producing strong men's U-17 squads: the 2013 cohort made the final of that's year's World Cup; the 2015 team was a semifinalist at the world tournament. It will be a shock if El Tri isn't part of the CONCACAF contingent in India this year.
It won't be a shock, however, if Mexico doesn't win the CONCACAF title. The USA squad has consistently shown well in its preparations, and attracted some attention by winning the Nike Friendlies in December. It is unusual to see Mexico and the USA in the same group at a CONCACAF tournament, but the format of this tournament means that arrangement happens to be the only way of making it possible for the two championship favorites to play each other twice: once in the group stage and perhaps again in the final.
El Salvador placed third in Central American qualifying, though it was only separated from Honduras by goal difference. Still, the team looks like the weakest to emerge from its region, and has never qualified for a World Cup. If it can get to the Classification Stage as one of the top two teams in this group, it will instantly be a favorite to clinch a CONCACAF berth at the tournament in India. But that looks unlikely, given the apparent strength of Mexico and the USA.
Jamaica only lost once in Caribbean qualifying: to Cuba in the semifinals. The third-placed team in its regional qualifying tournament, the Jamaican squad is basically a national All-Star schoolboy XI. That is true of almost all the teams at the U-17 Championship, of course - but the Jamaican roster is distinguished by having no players listed as attached to a pro club. Schoolboy soccer in Jamaica is something of a national event, and the stars of each season do regularly get trials with pro teams and experience with the best local clubs. The Jamaica Football Federation did invest in a full-time, residential camp for the U-17s in preparation for this tournament: the first time JFF has offered any such program to one of its youth teams. The USA will be the first team at the championship to see what effect full-time training since February has had on the Jamaica squad.
The Classification Stage
The six qualifiers from the group stage will be divided into two groups of three. The winner of Group C (expected to be either the USA or Mexico) will be grouped with the runners-up from Groups A and B. The second-placed team in Group C (whichever of the USA or Mexico didn't win the group, per pre-tournament expectations) will join a group with the winners of Groups A and B.
The top two teams in each three-team group make the U-17 World Cup. The winner of each group makes the CONCACAF Championship final. It is expected that the USA and Mexico will be the last two teams standing in this tournament, but El Tri's heavily favored U-20s didn't make the final of their regional championship earlier this year. Surprises can and do happen in tournament soccer.