Here I take you through the Caribbean countries playing at this year’s CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Costa Rica…
Background: The 2017 CONCACAF U-20 Championship will take place from 17 February to 5 March. Matches will be played at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Aymá and Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica. There are 12 countries competing altogether, split into three groups of four (A-C) to start off with. The top two from each group will progress to the final round – otherwise known as the classification stage – involving two groups of three (D-E). The top two from each group will qualify for the 2017 U-20 World Cup to be played from 20 May to 11 June in South Korea. The two group winners will contest the final.
Name: Antigua & Barbuda
Manager: Rolston Williams
Fixtures: vs Mexico (17/02), vs Honduras (20/02), vs Canada (23/02)
See 20-man squad below.
How did they qualify? Round 1 (June 2016) – 1st in Group A with 7 points from 3 games. Round 2 (October 2016) – 1st in Group A with 7 points from 3 games. Beat Trinidad & Tobago in the semi-final and lost to Haiti in the final. Runners-up.
Preparation: The squad have travelled to Costa Rica a few weeks prior to the tournament to get acclimatised to the general environment – in terms of altitude levels – and maximise training before their opener against Mexico.
Players to watch out for: DJ Buffonge | 18 | Manchester United. A highly rated youth prospect at Manchester United’s prestigious academy, English-born Buffonge is set to make his debut for Antigua & Barbuda having qualified for eligibility through his grandparents. United’s U-18 coach Paul McGuinness described him as “a left sided midfield player who can beat people and play some good through balls as well.”
Javorn Stevens | 18 | Greenbay Hoppers. The team’s captain and talisman up front, Stevens signed a short-term professional contract with Seattle Sounders’ USL affiliate side in December last year, pending the receipt of his P-1 Visa and International Transfer Certificate. He’s a quick centre-forward with an eye for goal. You can watch his profile on 2016 Carib Young Stars as he was one of the 15 players selected on the list.
Vashami Allen | 20 | Fort Road FC. A tall central defender who was the sole Antiguan representative named in the Caribbean U-20 final round Best XI, Allen made his senior international debut in a friendly defeat to Estonia in November last year. He played the full 90 minutes. His ambition is to play professionally in a European league and a string of solid performances in this tournament might push him closer to realising that dream.
Inside the camp: Matt Hall, Fort Road FC. “The quality of the squad was proven in the last group stages, where we topped our groups twice. We know the challenge is going to be much harder now that we have the powerhouses Mexico and teams like Honduras and Canada who are looking to make a name for themselves. Our expectations are to simply take the tournament game by game, and prepare for the next game in hand. Our first game is against Mexico and we’ve already come up with a game plan to give them a hard time, and we’re working everyday in training to execute what the coaches want us to do.”
Jacob Blackstock, Banbury FC. “I feel the preparation of the team is 100% spot on. The team and the management staff have been focused from the start and everyone is really looking forward to the first game against Mexico. The squad is technically and mentally very good and we all have the belief to beat anyone which includes Mexico, Honduras and Canada.”
Prediction: There’s no getting away from the fact that Rolston Williams’ side have been drawn against very tough opposition. Defending champions Mexico are strong favourites to take the overall title, let alone Group A. Honduras came out on top in Central American qualifying without losing a game and will be looking to secure back-to-back World Cup appearances. Although Canada haven’t qualified for the World Cup in a decade, they did make it to four consecutive World Cups between 2001 and 2007. I expect Antigua to put up a valiant fight but ultimately finish bottom of the pile because of the disparity in quality and tournament experience between them and their opponents.
Manager: Wilfrid Montilas
Fixtures: vs St Kitts & Nevis (18/02), vs USA (21/02), vs Panama (24/02)
See 20-man squad below.
How did they qualify? Round 1 (June 2016) – 1st in Group C with 9 points from 3 games. Round 2 (October 2016) – 1st in Group B with 7 points from 3 games. Beat Bermuda in the semi-final and beat Antigua & Barbuda in the final. Champions.
Preparation: Les Grenadiers will depart for Costa Rica on 16 February. They were supposed to leave earlier than that but the FA were apparently unable to make that happen. Instead they have played a string of local clubs as preparatory matches.
Players to watch out for: Roberto Louima | 19 | Real Hope Academy. Louima made a fantastic impression in the final round of qualifying, bagging a brace in the final and one in the semi-final to claim the Golden Ball award. He was invited by New York City FC to train with them during pre-season and he scored in a friendly victory over Jacksonville University. I have a feeling that he could take this Championship by storm.
Jonel Desire | 20 | AS Capoise. The cousin of Haiti international Jeff Louis, Desire was a member of the Haiti team that finished bottom of Group B at the last U-20 Championship. He was one of the standout performers in a disappointing campaign as he scored four goals altogether. He’s a short, stocky striker with an explosive turn of pace and a prolific goal-scoring record playing for his country at youth level. MLS club Real Salt Lake have reportedly been looking at the youngster, it has been rumoured on social media.
Ronaldo Damus | 17 | Real Hope Academy. Given his senior international debut aged just 16 in a World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica. Damus has proven himself to be an effective goal scorer – just like his teammate Louima, he scored twice in the final and once in the semi-final as well as notching a hat-trick against St Lucia in the group stages. The question is how will this 17-year-old talent cope against better opposition under harder circumstances? Has also been attracting the interest of Real Salt Lake, it has been rumoured on social media.
Inside the camp: Abraham Duverger, Uniao 1 Deziembro. “I think that we are well prepared for the tournament. We have really good players that come from all around the world, like France, Holland, Canada and Portugal. I’m confident that if we do what we are working hard for during the tournament we will have good results.”
Prediction: Out of all five Caribbean representatives, Haiti – and most likely Trinidad & Tobago – stand the greatest chance of advancing to the World Cup. They were highly impressive throughout Caribbean qualifying, playing attacking football which saw them score a total of 30 goals across eight matches, 16 of them coming in the first round. This culminated in them lifting the trophy. The big challengers for them will undoubtedly be regional powerhouses the USA whose squad is predominantly packed with players playing in MLS, including Jonathan Lewis and Jeremy Ebobisse, #3 and #4 overall picks respectively at this year’s SuperDraft. The Americans are always well organised and well prepared. Panama made their World Cup debut in 2003 and have qualified a further four times since. Indeed, in the last World Cup played two years ago, the Panamanians drew to Argentina and lost by just one-goal margins to Austria and Ghana. I think the USA will take the group title but if Haiti play to their maximum and their key players rise to the occasion, then there’s no reason why they can’t overcome Panama and clinch second spot. Man to man they are arguably more talented than their opponents but the collective side is just as, if not more, important in football. They have to get that right as well.
Name: St Kitts & Nevis
Manager: Jamir Claxton
Fixtures: vs Haiti (18/02), vs Panama (21/02), vs USA (24/02)
See 20-man squad below.
How did they qualify? Round 1 (June 2016) – 1st in Group D with 6 points from 3 games. Round 2 (October 2016) – 3rd in Group A with 4 points from 3 games. Qualified as the best ranked third-placed team over Cuba because of superior points total. Fifth place.
Preparation: The players have been in training since November. The SKNFA have called upon the services of Gary Stempel, who guided Panama’s U-20s to the World Cup in 2013, and physical trainer Leonel Flores who has experience with the Honduras U-17s. Both have helped with the team’s preparation and their work will stop when the Sugar Boyz begin the tournament. They’ve been based in Costa Rica since 7 February, getting used to the weather and further gelling as a group.
Players to watch out for: Tahir Hanley | 19 | Garden Hotspurs. Younger brother of senior St Kitts international Tishan Hanley, Tahir is a highly rated striker contracted to Garden Hotspurs in the SKN Premier Division. He bagged six goals during qualifying, two coming in the final round, and made his senior debut in a friendly against Nicaragua last year. “I would like to become a professional football player and play overseas,” said Hanley to CONCACAF.com. “Secondly, I would like to be known in St Kitts & Nevis. When people think of St Kitts & Nevis, they think of sprinter Kim Collins and footballer Atiba Harris. I would love to be added to this list and make my country proud.”
Delano Hodge | Unsure on Age | Conaree FC. A talented striker who grabbed two goals – one against Antigua & Barbuda, one against Curacao – in the final round of qualifying. At the St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla National Bank Department of Sports Football and Netball Competition in 2014, Hodge scored the most goals (8) in the Boys’ U-16 category for eventual champions Washington Archibald High School. A productive Championship could propel him further into the regional limelight.
Inside the camp: Raheem Somersall, Appalachian State. “We have a special unit: every player, every staff member, every sponsor, every supporter is a part of this team. Talent, attitude and hard work are what this team is made up of. We’ve had three months of preparation from November until January for this round, but overall we’ve had 8-9 months beginning back in June. Obviously our main goal is to advance to the second stage and then seek to qualify for the World Cup and make history. I said that we have been preparing for 8-9 months for this, but we’ve actually been preparing most of our lives, because there’s nothing better than being able to play for your country. Nothing is impossible.”
Prediction: The team started qualifying last summer on the wrong foot, losing 2-1 to the Dominican Republic. But their win over Jamaica a couple of days later was the turning point – that gave them extra belief and confidence and the players have improved since. The SKNFA technical director, Lenny Lake, explained that “all the U-20 players, in 2006, developed through our grassroots programme and played on our national youth teams over the last few years. They have built an excellent team cohesiveness.” That team cohesiveness will be crucial in Costa Rica as they will be making only their second appearance at the Championship, their last coming in 2007. It’s fair to say that this tournament will be more about garnering experience and building for the future as opposed to seriously challenging for a World Cup berth.
Name: Trinidad & Tobago
Manager: Brian Williams
Fixtures: vs Bermuda (19/02), vs Costa Rica (22/02), vs El Salvador (25/02)
See 20-man squad below.
How did they qualify? Round 1 (June 2016) – 1st in Group B with 7 points from 3 games. Round 2 (October 2016) – 2nd in Group B with 5 points from 3 games. Lost to Antigua & Barbuda in the semi-final and lost to Bermuda in the 3rd place playoff. Fourth place.
Preparation: The squad have travelled to Colombia prior to the tournament to play a series of warm-up friendlies against local opposition. They have played AcolFutPro (L), Puerto Tejada (D), Fundaleu (D) and Deportivo Cali’s U-20s (W).
Players to watch out for: Jabari Mitchell | 19 | W Connection. Former Naparima College playmaker who is the team captain having featured in this Championship two years ago. A speedy, creative No.10 who likes to play off the striker, he went on trial at Boavista of Portugal last summer and more recently at Mexican club Tigres.
Noah Powder | 18 | New York Red Bulls. A versatile player with a good engine, capable of operating across the backline or in midfield. Born in New Jersey, USA but qualifies to play for T&T through his father. He’s previously captained the U-17s and reportedly went on trial with Paris Saint-Germain earlier this year.
Nicholas Dillon | 19 | Central FC. A tall, bustling centre-forward who has been likened to former Burnley and Leicester frontman Ade Akinbiyi due to his style of play by Central’s managing director, Brent Sancho. The 19-year-old spent three weeks on trial at Portland Timbers in 2015 and more recently has been training with Belgian lower league club K. Patro Eisden Maasmechelen alongside teammate Nathaniel Garcia with the aim of securing a permanent deal. He scored eight goals in qualifying including five against the Turks & Caicos Islands.
Inside the camp: Jabari Mitchell, W Connection. “We’re preparing well, mentally and physically we’re getting ready for this tough job at hand which isn’t beyond us. The squad has a lot of quality but it’s all about combining our efforts. Our goal is to qualify for the World Cup and I believe we can.”
Prediction: T&T are more than capable of securing a top two finish in this group. The hosts Costa Rica will most likely pose the biggest threat, spurred on by the home crowd, although El Salvador are improving at U-20 level and made their first World Cup in 2013. In the past a lack of adequate preparation hasn’t helped T&T’s chances. But it’s hoped that their pre-tournament training camp in Colombia will make them more fine-tuned. They’ll be without the services of influential players Levi Garcia, Keston Julien, Tyrel Emmanuel, Jarred Dass and Isaiah Hudson. They demonstrated their defensive solidity last October – conceding just two goals across five games in normal time. But they need to show more cutting edge in the final third. Their opener versus Bermuda should be tasty given they lost to them in the 3rd place playoff. If they can hit the ground running with three points there, then that would do a lot for their confidence moving forward. I’m going to go with T&T to edge past El Salvador for the second spot.
Manager: Kyle Lightbourne
Fixtures: vs Trinidad & Tobago (19/02), vs El Salvador (22/02), vs Costa Rica (25/02)
See 20-man squad below.
How did they qualify? Round 1 (June 2016) – 2nd in Group C with 6 points from 3 games. Round 2 (October 2016) – 2nd in Group A with 4 points from 3 games. Lost to Haiti in the semi-final and beat Trinidad & Tobago in the 3rd place playoff. Third place.
Preparation: A number of training camps took place over the Christmas break and the domestic-based players have had vigorous training sessions. As well as this, a handful of U-20 players participated in the Bermuda – Canada friendly last month which the hosts lost 2-4.
Players to watch out for: Osagi Bascome | 18 | Bristol City. Nephew of senior head coach Andrew Bascome, Osagi first arrived on the scene in the CONCACAF Boys’ U-15 Championship played in the Cayman Islands four years ago. Recently he’s made great strides: capped by his country at senior level and officially signed by Bristol City this month following a successful trial with their U-23 side. He’s an energetic, foot-on-the-ball type midfielder who can also play up front if needed.
Kacy Butterfield | 19 | Walsall. Recommended to Walsall by the club’s former striker Lightbourne, Butterfield initially impressed on trial before agreeing a one-year contract at the Bescott Stadium last summer. He’s a rangy holding midfielder and the Bermudiancaptain, so a vital member of the squad. Walsall manager, Jon Whitney, has described Butterfield as “a defensive-minded midfielder who breaks up the play and gets us [the team] going again” as well as “a working progress“.
Tevahn Tyrell | 19 | Ilkeston FC. One of several Bermudian youngsters based at English non-league outfit Ilkeston, Tyrell will be expected to lead the line in Costa Rica. His speed, strength and height could come in useful when Bermuda look for an outlet up top.
Inside the camp: Tevahn Tyrell, Ilkeston FC. “I feel that Bermuda are very well prepared. In the last round a lot of key players were not available to us due to injury and school commitments. We now have all our players available for selection therefore we are bringing our strongest side. My expectation is for Bermuda to qualify for the next round.”
Paul Douglas, Bermuda Athletic Association. “We are mentally and physically ready for this competition. The team will meet in Florida where we will further our preparations collectively. The squad is balanced. Every position is as strong as the others. Our coaches picked the best possible squad that would give us our best chance at advancing through to the next round. We have to let people and the other teams know that we advanced to this round for a reason. Making it to South Korea is not impossible, but difficult nonetheless. I have faith in our team’s ability to make it happen.”
Prediction: “This is not a holiday camp,” said Kyle Lightbourne to The Royal Gazette newspaper last week. “This is the tournament we would really love to do well in and, for us as coaches and all the staff that’s going down there, our job is to push these guys to get the best out of them that we can.” At the end of the day, though, I believe Bermuda have to be realistic. The current crop of players have shown throughout qualifying that they’re a tight group and individuals such as Bascome, Butterfield and Tyrell offer that bit of class. But do they have enough in their ranks to take a top two finish? They could spring a surprise result but to finish in the top two might be too much of a tall order. This will be an excellent learning experience for the squad nonetheless, especially those still based on the island as they’ll be exposed to a higher standard of play.
By Nathan Carr
Thank you for reading! Feel free to leave any constructive feedback in the comments box below. Stay tuned for more CONCACAF U-20 Championship related content coming out soon. Meanwhile, you can get in touch with me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Big up to Matt Hall, Jacob Blackstock, Abraham Duverger, Raheem Somersall, Jabari Mitchell, Tevahn Tyrell and Paul Douglas for their contributions to the ‘Inside The Camp’ feature.