By Noah Davis
The United States will look to advance to its seventh consecutive U-20 World Cup when the final round of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship begins this Thursday in Trinidad and Tobago. The four top teams from the eight-team tournament will gain entrance to the main event, being held in Egypt from September 24-October 16.
For the first time since 1996, the CONCACAF championship will finish with a winner. (Previously, it was divided into two groups.) Despite the success the U.S. has had in advancing to the World Cup, it has never won the regional championship.
The American team, which is led by coach Thomas Rongen and features three players -- midfielder Bryan Arguez, goalkeeper Brian Perk, and defender Anthony Wallace -- who participated in the team's run to the quarterfinals during the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup, should advance from its group. Rongen's squad features nine players who ply their trade professionally, including six in Major League Soccer and three abroad. Some big names -- Felix Garcia, Abdus Ibrahim -- are missing from the roster, but these players will be available for the World Cup should the team qualify. (For example, Michael Bradley didn't play during qualifying but he was a large part of the team's run in Canada.)
The team plays Jamaica in its opening game on March 6, then Honduras two days later, and finishes with El Salvador on the 10th. (T&T, Canada, Costa Rica, and Mexico will play in Group B.) The semifinals will be played on March 13th, with the finals held on the 15th.
While the U.S. squad will be one of the favorites, other CONCACAF teams boast strong, young talent as well. In recent years, the depth of the field has increased, a fact Rongen admitted in an interview with Goal.com's Andrea Canales. " In our region, it is harder and harder to qualify, especially on the road, and there are good teams out there," he said.
Canada: The team automatically qualified for the 2007 World Cup as the host country, but struggled mightily, posting an 0-3 record. Getting to Egypt could be a challenge for Tony Fonseca and his team.
Costa Rica: Los Ticos advanced to the final round with relative ease and have qualified for the U-20 World Cup six times, more than any other Central American nation. Led by Ronald Gonzalez, the team should challenge for a spot in the semifinals.
El Salvador: The Central American nation has yet to advance to the U-20 World Cup and this won't change in 2009.
Honduras: Los Catrachos squeezed past St. Vincent & the Grenadines to secure the final spot in the eight-team tournament, but will struggle to displace the U.S. and Jamaica in the top two of Group A.
Jamaica: The Reggae Boyz became only the second Caribbean national to qualify for the U-20 in 2001 and Donovan Duckie's squad looks to do it again here.
Mexico: Although its full national team is in a state of chaos, its youth side will have no problem getting through to Egypt.
Trinidad and Tobago: Having home field advantage will help, but El Tri and Costa Rica could be too much for the Soca Warriors to overcome.
Predicted order of finish
1. United States
4. El Salvador
2. Costa Rica
3. Trinidad and Tobago
United States roster
GOALKEEPERS (3): Sean Johnson (Central Florida; Lilburn, Ga.), Josh Lambo (FC Dallas; Middleton, Wis.), Brian Perk (UCLA; Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.)
DEFENDERS (7): Gale Agbossoumonde (unattached; Syracuse, N.Y.), Kyle Davies (Southampton; Danville, Calif.), Jorge Flores (Chivas USA; Anaheim, Calif.), Aaron Maund (Notre Dame; Dorchester, Mass.), Amobi Okugo (San Juan Lightning; Sacramento, Calif.), Anthony Wallace (FC Dallas; St. Petersburg, Fla.), Sheanon Williams (unattached; Boston, Mass.)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Bryan Arguez (Hertha Berlin; Miami, Fl.), Danny Cruz (Houston Dynamo; Glendale, Ariz.), Dilly Duka (Rutgers; Montville, N.J.), Jared Jeffrey (Club Brugge; Richardson, Texas), Brian Ownby (Virginia; Glen Allen, Va.); Brek Shea (FC Dallas; College Station, Texas)
FORWARDS (4): Sam Garza (Denver; Highland Village, Texas), Peri Marosevic (FC Dallas; Rockford, Ill.), Billy Schuler (North Carolina; Allentown, N.J.), Tony Taylor (Jacksonville; Jacksonville, Fla.)
Noah Davis covers the United States Men's National Team for Goal.com.