The qualifying competition in North, Central America and the Caribbean for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011 kicks off today in Guatemala City. The USA and six-time regional champions Mexico enter as favourites, with the four eventual semi-finalists from the 12-team field heading to South America this summer to represent the region at the 18th world youth showpiece.

USA are coached by the experienced Thomas Rongen, a Dutchman and former MLS coach of the year, who hopes to take the young Americans to what would be his fourth FIFA U-20 World Cup. “This selection was probably tougher than any other cycle, and this is my fourth cycle,” said Rongen, who has assembled a squad with 16 full professionals in it, eight of them from Major League Soccer, North America’s top league. “That’s a good thing. It means we’ve gotten deeper in every position. We’ve got an ever-evolving talent pool.”

The USA have qualified for 13 FIFA U-20 World Cups, their best finish coming in 1989 in Saudi Arabia when they went to the semi-finals with a certain Kasey Keller between the sticks. Rongen’s best showings as a coach came in UAE 2003 and Canada 2007 with quarter-final finishes. “I’m excited for qualifying and I think it’s great to go through the process of having to earn a spot in the World Cup,” said Dillon Powers, a veteran of the USA’s last campaign at the U-20 finals, when they went out at the group stage of Egypt 2009. “I’m also excited to play in a meaningful game because we play a lot of games but most of them are friendlies. We expect anything can happen. I’m excited for this team and I think we have the chance to do well.”

The Americans, led by dynamic and powerful defender Gale Agbossoumonde and West Ham-based midfield sensation Sebastian Lletget, open their account against minnows Suriname in a Group B that also includes Panama, who have improved in recent years, qualifying for three of the last four U-20 World Cups. While Suriname will be hunting an unlikely first-ever spot at a FIFA world finals, Panama will be expecting to continue a trend of upward mobility.

Hopes for Mexico and co
Group D features regional powerhouses Mexico in action against Trinidad and Tobago and Cuba. The Mexicans will be coached by Juan Carlos Chavez, whose entire team – save one – are already linked with club sides in their native land. The Mexicans reached the quarter-finals in Canada in 2007, complete with members of the so-called golden generation that won U-17 gold in 2005, and will be hoping to ease the pain of failing to qualify for the last edition in Egypt two years ago with a fine run in qualifying.

Trinidad and Tobago, for their part, hope to bring an end to a miserable moment in the dual-island Caribbean nation’s football development. The senior team have failed to reach the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup and, just weeks ago, their U-17s stumbled to miss out on the junior World Cup taking place in Mexico this summer. Zoran Vranes’ youngsters represent a last chance for some Soca rhythm on a big stage this year.

Group A consists of hosts Guatemala, who will be hoping familiar fields and atmospheres are enough for them to get the better of Jamaica and Honduras, who qualified for Egypt 2009 only to make a first round exit. Group C rounds out the field with Canada, who reached the quarter-finals as recently as 2003, leading the pack along with French overseas holding Guadeloupe and Central American powers Costa Rica.

The winners and runners-up from the four groups will move on to the all important quarter-final round on 5 and 6 April. The four winners will move on to the semi-finals and, more importantly, book their tickets for the big show in Colombia from 29 July to 20 August.   

We expect anything can happen. I’m excited for this team and I think we have the chance to do well.

USA midfielder Dillon Powers