The first surprise of the 2017 CONCACAF Men's U-17 Championship came in the very first game. The Group A opener set Curacao against Haiti: the fourth-ranked team out of Caribbean qualifying against the first. In qualifying, Haiti had beaten Curacao, 3-1. In the CONCACAF Championship, Curacao got its revenge.
Though it was Haiti that looked the better team for most of the first half, it was Curacao that opened the scoring. In the 43rd minute, Nathan Bernadina tapped in a cross from close range.
Haiti had chances in the second half, but all were in vain. Curacao held on for the 1-0 win.
On paper, the match looked like a playoff for third between the two weaker teams in the four-team group. For either team to make a run for at a top-two finish and a place in the Classification Stage (the next round of the tournament), a win in this game seemed essential. Curacao has achieved that goal and - at the very least - cannot be eliminated from the competition until the last round of the group stage.
The problem both Haiti and Curacao now face is that the evidence of the other match in Group A suggests Panama and Honduras are simply better teams: quicker, more efficient, and more likely to put the ball in the net.
For the two Central American teams, their first game of Group A was a frantic back-and-forth shootout that saw the two favorites to qualify for the next round from this group trade almost 30 shots between them.
(Panama's stats are on the left hand side of the graphic.)
The match was perhaps exemplified by a 10-minute stretch of the first half that saw three of its six goals scored. Panama missed a chance to go ahead shortly before Luis Enrique Palma fired Honduras into the lead n the 16th minute with a well-struck free kick. Five minutes later, Eduardo Guerrero tied it up for Panama. He had looked offside on the equalizer, but there was no doubt about his second: Guerrero simply out ran the Honduras back line and finished with confidence.
Los Canaleros went in 2-1 up at half-time, but the game tilted back into balance in the 49th minute. A handball in the box gave Carlos Mejia the chance to equalize from the spot. The score would stay 2-2 until the 87th minute, when Angel Orelien won a penalty for what looked a lot like a dive.
Much like Guerrero earlier in the game, Orelien made amends for the debatable nature of his first goal with a fabulous second. In the 89th minute, he opened up the Honduras defense with a deft cut-back and fired in his team's fourth goal of the game.
The 4-2 win perhaps flattered Panama a little, but six goals was an accurate reflection of a match in which either team might have scored six on their own.
It is too much to expect every game of the tournament to be as open as the one Panama and Honduras played, but it provided an encouraging introduction to this year's CONCACAF U-17 Championship.
Group A is next in action on April 24. Curacao will play a Honduras team that will be very keen to claim a full three points. Home-team Panama will play Haiti. The results of those games will determine whether this group is likely to conclude with Panama and Honduras moving on to the Classification Stage, or whether Curacao and Haiti can challenge pre-tournament perceptions and threaten to oust one or both of the Group A favorites from the competition.
Next up for the CONCACAF U-17 Championship, Group B gets underway on April 22. Cuba will play Suriname in the opening game of the day, followed by Costa Rica's match against Canada.