Photo courtesy CONCACAF.com.
Mary 1, 2012
The United States feels it may have some history to rewrite at the CONCACAF Under-17 Women's Championship. The Bahamas feels it already has done that.
When the third installment of the confederation's age-group championship kicks off in Guatemala City on Wednesday, the Americans have some catching up to do.
Despite winning the CONCACAF crown and reaching the final at the inaugural U-17 Women's World Cup in 2008 - when it lost to North Korea, the United States didn't even get back to the CONCACAF title match in 2010.
And it wasn't for a lack of trying. While outscoring teams 38-0 at the CONCACAF championship, a 0-0 draw -- and eventual loss on penalties -- to Canada in the semifinals halted the Americans' World Cup hopes.
For a program that has produced three Olympic gold medals, two Women's World Cup titles, two U-20 Women's World Cup crowns - and had never had a women's team fail to reach the quarterfinals at any women's world championship at any level, it was a shocking disappointment. An entirely new group of youngsters will try to erase the moment from people's memories.
"It is a new group," U.S. coach Albertin Montoya said. "It's something we try to keep in the back of their minds as a coaching staff, so the players are not overconfident.
"'Expect the unexpected. It's another game, something you've been doing from the time you've been five years old. Play to the best of your ability. That should be enough.'"
With three berths in the U-17 Women's World Cup in Azerbaijan at stake, getting to and winning a semifinal is the minimum expected of the United States.
For the Bahamas, it already has achieved its historic milestone.
When the nation comprised of 3,000 islands, cays and inlets beat Guyana 1-0 on December 3 in Jamaica, it claimed the last of three Caribbean berths in the confederation finals, and celebrated the first time the country had qualified for a CONCACAF championship at any level.
"It feels good to advance," Bahamian soccer federation vice president Fred Lunn told the Nassau Guardian at the time. "It's at a point now where the next round will be extremely tough."
Grouped with the United States, Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago - which it already lost to 3-0 in qualifying, the Bahamas will be prohibitive underdogs.
For those at the other end of the scale, like the United States and Canada, qualifying for the World Cup is simply mandatory.
Canada has qualified both in 2008 and 2010, and returns as the defending champion.
"Qualifying for the World Cup is our biggest priority," said coach Bryan Rosenfeld, who will be bringing a Canadian team to a third straight CONCACAF U-17 women's finals. "It creates more opportunities to develop."
Further indication of the divide between programs one needs only to look at their preparation. The United States this year travelled to La Manga, Spain, to play U-19 teams from France, the Netherlands and England. Canada, meanwhile, trained in the United States, Trinidad and Mexico. The Bahamas , however, was holding fund raisers to get ready.
Besides the United States, Canada and Mexico, only two other CONCACAF nations have qualified for the World Cup. One of them, Costa Rica, didn't qualify for the CONCACAF finals this time, and the other, Trinidad, reached the World Cup in 2010 as host.
It would appear to give the North American sides a considerable advantage over their five other rivals: host Guatemala, Jamaica, Panama, Trinidad and the Bahamas.
But, as the United States learned two years ago, favorite status doesn't always work in one's favor.
"It works both ways," Montoya said. "When you have deep squad, it's challenging to keep everyone happy. You have players who are used to being stars of their club teams on the bench. The luxury of a team that doesn't have a deep squad is the starting 11 is known by everybody."
And while the pressure to win a semifinal isn't as dire - the third-place game winner also will qualify for Azerbaijan, Rosenfeld suggests that is not much comfort.
"Either way, if you don't win the semifinal, you have to win the third-place game," he said. "And the amount of energy you have to expend in a semifinal makes it challenging.