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A guide to the Qualification Stage of the 2018 CONCACAF Men’s U-20 Championship for New York Red Bulls fans

Six teams left; four will qualify for the 2019 U-20 World Cup.

Costa Rica v United States - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

The 2018 CONCACAF Men’s U-20 Championship crammed 80 games and 382 goals into its first 10 days. The pace should be a little less frantic from here: 34 teams have been whittled down to just six for the Qualification Stage of the tournament.

The six groups of the Group Stage advanced just one team each to this phase of the competition. The group winners were exactly the teams predicted by the tournament’s seeding: every group was won by its top seed. This tournament has been short on upsets, though the long-term ambition behind making the regional men’s U-20 tournament open to every CONCACAF member association is to foster a stronger set of U-20 programs across the region and hopefully a much more competitive tournament in years to come.

But that ambition will take a little time to be realized, and will require CONCACAF to stick to this format for a while. For now, it’s the six teams that qualified for this phase of the tournament last time around, in 2017, who will duke it out for four berths at the 2019 Men’s U-20 World Cup.

The USA won the 2017 Men’s U-20 Championship, and were joined at the 2017 Men’s U-20 World Cup by Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica. So consider it something of an upset if either Panama or El Salvador breaks out of the top six and into the top four this year.

The six teams in this phase are divided into two groups of three, so each team has just two games to play in this round. There will be a final on November 21 between the winners of the two Qualification Stage groups, but the primary focus of all the teams left in the tournament is one of those U-20 World Cup spots.

Here’s a look at the teams remaining in the tournament:

Group G

The winners of Group A, Group C, and Group E are the three teams allocated to the Qualification Stage’s Group G: i.e. the USA, Honduras, and Costa Rica.

Schedule

Tuesday, November 13 - 6:30 pm, Eastern: Honduras vs Costa Rica

Friday, November 16 - 7:30 pm, Eastern: USA vs Costa Rica

Monday, November 19 - 8:00 pm, Eastern: USA vs Honduras

Teams

USA

The USA made three changes to its squad after the Group Stage. Griffin Dorsey, Anthony Fontana, and Isaac Angking have been released back to their clubs. Sergino Dest, Sebastian Soto, and Chris Richards have joined the U-20 squad for the latter stages of the tournament.

How they got here

The USA scored 39 goals and conceded just two on the way to five straight wins in Group A. The top-scoring team in the tournament heading into the Qualification Stage, the US U-20 MNT has every right to be considered the favorite to win this competition outright.

The USA has yet to score fewer than six goals in a game. The closest any opponent in the Group Stage got to really challenging the US was when St Vincent and the Grenadines kept the Americans scoreless for an entire half (and still lost 6-0). Throw in the fact the USA is playing at home: this is the team to beat at this tournament.

It is fair to ask whether the USA made its group look easy, or simply had lighter-weight opponents than were to be found in other groups at this championship. But that is a difficult question to answer conclusively, and no reason to deny the US U-20 MNT due credit for its achievements in the Group Stage: the home team looks like the best side in the 2018 CONCACAF Men’s U-20 Championship, and it is up to its next opponents to prove that assertion wrong.

Players to watch

Chris Gloster

The former New York Red Bulls Academy player is at Hannover now. But the 18-year-old fullback is as close to a homegrown RBNY talent as there is to be found at this competition.

Alex Mendez

The 18-year-old midfielder has been getting good reviews for his work at this tournament. He was an LA Galaxy’s prospect until very recently: in October, he announced a move to SC Freiburg.

Honduras

Honduras has added forward Patrick Palacios to its squad after the Group Stage, sending midfielder Edwin Rodriguez home. Palacios had been intended to be with the squad from the start of the tournament, but was detained by the fact his passport had expired - per Diez.

How they got here

Cantered through Group C with five wins and 30 goals, but very nearly came unstuck in the last game of the Group Stage.

Perhaps leaning a little too hard into the need to rotate players to keep the squad fresh for the Qualification Stage, Honduras fell into a 3-1 hole in the first half of its group-stage finale against Antigua and Barbuda. An upset was spared by a second-half flurry of goals that saw Los Catrachos to a 4-3 win.

In its preceding game, Honduras was held scoreless by Belize for 72 minutes, though Josue Villafranca scored four goals in the last 20 minutes to resoundingly end his team’s frustration. And in the game before that, Los Catrachos were a little fortunate to beat Cuba, 3-1, thanks to two late goals

So Honduras did not emerge from Group C entirely untested. Indeed, against teams with the attacking clout to punch back - Antigua and Barbuda and Cuba - Los Catrachos have looked perhaps a little vulnerable.

Players to watch

Carlos Mejia

Mejia was Golden Boot winner at the 2017 CONCACAF Men’s U-17 Championship and the player who briefly had France playing catch-up against Honduras in the 2017 U-17 World Cup. He’s in the running for the Golden Boot at this tournament too, carrying five goals with him out of the Group Stage.

Josue Villafranca

Honduras’ top scorer after the Group Stage, thanks mostly to his four-goal haul against Belize.

Costa Rica

No changes to the squad that contested the Group Stage for Costa Rica. Los Ticos are sticking by the roster that got them through to the Qualification Stage.

How they got here

Costa Rica’s most obvious virtue at this tournament is its defense. Los Ticos have not conceded a goal yet at this championship. The team scored fewer than half as many goals (14) in the Group Stage as its Qualification Stage Group G rivals, USA and Honduras. But there’s no need to score heavily if the other side can’t score at all.

Group E only had five teams in it, which means Costa Rica has played four games to date - one less game than USA and Honduras. The team saved the best of its four Group Stage wins for last, trouncing St Lucia, 6-0, and perhaps notifying its future opponents in the tournament that it does have some attacking firepower.

Players to watch

Kevin Chamorro

Costa Rica’s starting ‘keeper can expect to be a bit busier in this stage of the competition than he was during Group E play. But if the clean sheets keep coming for him, Los Ticos will be on their way to the next U-20 World Cup.

Josue Abarca

The playmaker was part of Costa Rica’s run to the 2017 U-17 World Cup, and that experience and exposure helped him to win a move to Mexican club Santos Laguna. Perhaps a similar run with his national U-20 side will help him crack the first team at his new club.

Group H

Mexico, Panama, and El Salvador - winners of Group B, D, and F respectively - comprise Group H of the Qualification Stage.

Schedule

Tuesday, November 13 - 4:15 pm, Eastern: El Salvador vs Panama

Friday, November 16 - 5:15 pm, Eastern: El Salvador vs Mexico

Monday, November 19 - 5:30 pm, Eastern: Mexico vs Panama

Teams

Mexico

Mexico dropped Carlos Alonso Vargas and added Roberto Meraz for the second phase of the tournament.

How they got here

Surprisingly, El Tri had the most challenging journey through the Group Stage. Jamaica defied expectations, stood up to the region’s traditional heavyweight at this level, and forced a 2-2 draw that turned the last two rounds of the group into a hunt for superior goal difference between the Reggae Boyz and Mexico.

But the suspense over which team would prevail was short-lived. Mexico had built up a substantial goal difference advantage over Jamaica in the opening games of Group B, and won its last two matches by a combined score of 18-0. The Reggae Boyz won their last two games by a total score of 18-1, finishing up eight short of Mexico’s +29 goal difference.

Players to watch

Diego Lainez

He won the Best Player award at this year’s Toulon Tournament. That is not necessarily a guarantee of future success, but it is an award that has previously been won by Thierry Henry, Javier Mascherano, and James Rodriguez.

Throw in the fact that Lainez is getting regular minutes in Liga MX with his club, America - and you have a player who looks very much on the rise.

He may be best known to US soccer fans as the player who tried to stand up to Matt Miazga - despite being almost a foot shorter than the former RBNY defender - when Mexico played USMNT in September of this year.

Jose Juan Macias

Macias is the current leader in the tournament’s Golden Boot race with 10 goals scored in the Group Stage. He scored six of those in El Tri’s relentless quest for goals over its last two games in Group B, as the team sought to ensure Jamaica didn’t get close to winning the group on goal difference.

An emerging player for Liga MX’s Chivas, Macias made six appearances and scored two goals in his club’s run to the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League title. RBNY fans may remember him as the player who replaced Alan Pulido for the last 10 minutes of the first leg of the CCL semifinal series between Chivas and the New York Red Bulls.

Panama

Panama has replaced forward Tomas Rodriguez with forward Angel Valverde for the next phase of the tournament.

How they got here

Won all five of their matches in Group D, by an aggregate score of 17-3.

Players to watch

Saed Diaz

He’s the younger brother of Ismael Diaz, a star of the Panama squads that went to the 2013 U-17 World Cup and 2015 U-20 World Cup. Ismael has since graduated to the senior men’s national team player pool, and played for his country at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Saed’s standout moment of this tournament so far was scoring both goals in Panama’s 2-1 group-stage win over Canada.

Diego Valanta

Valanta and Saed Diaz are Panama’s joint top-scorers in the tournament so far with four goals each.

El Salvador

El Salvador has replaced forward Gerson Sanchez with forward Milton Campos for the Qualification Stage.

How they got here

Won Group F with a game to spare, which might help to explain why El Salvador in the only team in the Qualification Stage that actually lost a game in the Group Stage. Guyana took advantage of an opponent whose eyes might not have entirely been on the prize to register a 2-0 win over El Salvador on the last day of group-stage games.

That loss and El Salvador’s penchant for narrow wins - just seven goals scored in the Group Stage and a goal difference of only +2 - adds up to what looks like potentially the weakest team remaining in the tournament. Or maybe Group F was the strongest group in the opening phase of the competition.

Players to watch

Alexis Cerritos

Attached to D.C. United’s academy, Alexis is the son of Ronald Cerritos - who won 70 caps for El Salvador and MLS Cup with San Jose Earthquakes in 2001.

Siliazar Henriquez

The defender’s brace won El Salvador’s group-stage game against Guatemala.

The Qualification Stage kicks off on November 13. Find the games on Univision Deportes and CONCACAF Go.