The United States has never lost to any of the teams in its group, at any level, but one draw and an inferior goal differential (itself even less likely, but could happen) could put the USA in second place in group A. The team most likely to give USA some trouble is also their first opponent (match kicks off today at 7:30 ET): Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is the best team in Central America, as they are the only team outside the northern trio of USA, Canada and Mexico to qualify for a U-20 Women’s World Cup (placing third in WCQ in 2008, 2010 and 2012). However, they did fail to even get to the 2012 CONCACAF tournament, having lost a qualifying match to Guatemala, so they’re certainly not a lock for second in the group; those two teams will meet in this year’s tournament in their second match, on the Jan. 11. They usually play much like Mexico: organized and possession-focused, more interested in passing the ball around then in out-running or out-leaping opponents. And like Mexico, they like taking shots from long range – at least against the United States – although they’re not usually as successful at it.
Jamaica is probably the best team in the Caribbean, a team of big and fast athletes. They have the distinction of being the only team outside of North America to qualify for every U-20 CONCACAF tournament, although they’ve never advanced to a semifinal. To do it this time, they have to get past Costa Rica; those two will meet in their third match, on Jan. 13.
Guatemala hosted the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers at the U-20 level in 2010 and the U-17 level in 2012, which has helped push them to become a better team as well. They’ll probably finish last in the group, but could even finish second with two great performances; they’ve already shown they can beat Costa Rica.
In all three matches, the USA can expect a defensive opponent, careful to not let the US score easily, while waiting for a counterattack. Costa Rica will probably have some spells of quality possession, especially if they can keep the US from getting a goal for much of the game and the American’s become frustrated. Jamaica is fast enough and big enough that one defensive breakdown on the United States’ part is all they need to turn the match – the US defense will have to be on its toes for the entire 90 minutes.
Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Honduras
Mexico arguably has the easier group. Trinidad & Tobago is much like Jamaica (in fact, they’ve only failed to qualify for CONCACAF WCQ once, in 2012, but like Jamaica, they’ve never gotten out of their group). Honduras has never before qualified for a CONCACAF tournament at either the U-17 or U-20 level, but they probably resemble the other Central American nations – small players focused on possession – rather than the Caribbeans. The Cayman Islands are about what you’d expect from a very small island nation (population: not even 60,000, less than the total student population of all the colleges represented on the US squad). You could guess that they’re only here because they’re hosting, but they did in fact qualify to compete in the 2010 CONCACAF U-17 qualifiers all on their own, and even won a group match there (against Haiti).
Mexico only needs two wins to assure a semifinal appearance, but will certainly want to win all three; if both the United States and Mexico win their groups, then they won’t face each other in the semifinals, making those matches likely wins for the regional powerhouses. And even if they do end up playing each other in a semifinal, the loser would still be able to qualify by winning the third-place match. In other words, it’s never been easier for any of these eight teams to qualify for the U-20 World Cup; the two semifinalists that aren’t the US and Mexico will most likely face each other in that third-place match and earn the right to play in Canada later in the year. Any team that gets to that match could certainly win it.