FINAL COUNTDOWN TO QUALIFYING: After three solid days of training in Sunrise, Fla., the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team arrived in Panama City, Panama, on Saturday morning for the 2007 CONCACAF Final Round Qualifying Tournament. The U.S. trains for four more days before opening Group A play against Haiti on Jan. 17 at 6:30 p.m. ET. The USA then faces Guatemala on Jan. 19 at 6:30 p.m. ET and finishes the tournament against Panama on Jan. 21 at 6 p.m. ET. Fans can watch all of the matches from Panama live on GolTV, or follow the U.S. matches online via ussoccer.com’s MatchTracker.
PACKED FOR PANAMA: The team had an early wake up call on Saturday morning, eating a quick breakfast before departing for the 30-minute bus ride to the Miami airport. You’d think with 15 staff members, 18 players and enough equipment to last for more than a week, it would be quite hectic getting bags checked and the boys through security. The team coordinator and equipment manager have this process down to a science however, and within a half hour of getting off the bus, the entire group was relaxing at the gate, a full 60 minutes before takeoff. The team received plenty of good wishes from fellow passengers, and even an official “Good luck” from the flight crew over the intercom upon landing in Panama, answered by a loud roar of applause from a contingent of players in the back of the plane.
THROUGH THE COUNTRYSIDE: The bus ride from the Panama airport was fairly uneventful, but it certainly offered a telling snapshot of the team’s new surroundings. As the bus crossed a bridge with the Panama City skyline straight ahead, players could look to either side of the road and tell clearly that, at 2:45 p.m., it was definitely low tide. To the left, the Pacific Ocean stretched to the horizon, but under the bridge was nothing more than exposed dirt with a handful of trickling streams, while to the right, were some extremely humble dwellings strewn along the bridge. Interestingly, some of these homes had small boats which appeared to be “beached” outside the back of their houses. After taking in the entire surroundings however, it became clear that some people relied on these boats for transportation, or perhaps even their livelihood, even if they are only operational when the tide chooses to cooperate. As the bus neared the hotel, weaving through some tight spaces in the heart of downtown those humble homes turned to expensive hotels and casinos, making for an interesting dynamic as the two drastically different lifestyles are no more than 100 yards away from each other. At the hotel, the open air lobby makes for a unique entryway, and there’s a pool straight ahead up a small set of stairs. On a less overcast day, it’s likely to be a popular spot with sunbathers, and a few of the players (and staff) could certainly use the ‘rays.
MEDIA FRENZY STARTS EARLY: Before the team could load up the bus in Panama, they were greeted by a throng of Panamanian media at the airport. They waited patiently outside customs, but as soon as the first blue track jacket was in sight, they descended en mass, with video cameras rolling and flash bulbs popping. Head coach Thomas Rongen was the first corralled as he offered his take on the upcoming CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament doing his best to recall his Chivas USA days by answering their questions in the native tongue. The primary focus then turned to team captain Freddy Adu, who responded well to a handful of questions (all in English with the help of team scout Juan Carlos Michia translating). Overall, it was a bit chaotic at times, but the players and staff persevered, eventually reaching the calm of the team bus. A few other players were asked to sign some autographs by waiting fans, including a couple Americans in U.S. jerseys. Apparently, even a customs agent made off with a signed declaration card. It’s great to see the international interest in this team and the warm reception the players have received thus far.
SUNRISE SEND-OFF: The night before, following their final practice in Sunrise, Fla., the players were sent out in style as well. About 250 fans, mostly young kids, from local clubs came out to watch the team train under the lights at a nearby park. As the team began its cool down, Rongen introduced each player and their current club or college. For the four players taken earlier in the day during the MLS SuperDraft (more on that later), it was their first official introduction as professionals. The fans then enjoyed mingling with the players for upwards of 20 minutes, getting autographs and posing for pictures. It was a great opportunity for the players to give a little something back to the local community which was so gracious in allowing the team to train on some truly top-notch facilities during the build-up to qualifying.
GROUP A SNAPSHOT: The U.S. faces a challenging Group A in Final Round Qualifying, with an opening match vs. Haiti on Jan. 17. The Haitians have competed in each of the last three CONCACAF Qualifying Tournaments, and earned a spot in this year's competition as winners of Group G in the Second Round of the Caribbean Zone Qualifying Tournament. Up next is Guatemala on Jan. 19. The chapines are back in the final round of qualifying after missing out on the tournament in 2005, one of only three times they’ve not been to the final stage in the history of the event (dating back to 1962). Guatemala advanced to the final round by winning Group 1 of the Central American Zone Qualifying Tournament, and looks to carry that momentum to their first-ever appearance at a U-20 World Cup. Finally, the U.S. takes on the hosts on Jan. 21. As one of two group hosts (Mexico hosts Group B), Panama automatically qualified for the final round, and hopes to ride the success of two consecutive U-20 World Cup appearances. This will be the second time the U.S. U-20s will face Panama in qualifying as the two teams met for the first time ever during the second match of the 2005 qualifying tournament, which the U.S. won 2-0.
2007 CONCACAF Final Round Group A Qualifying Schedule
Wednesday, Jan. 17
USA vs. Haiti
Guatemala vs. Panama
Friday, Jan. 19
USA vs. Guatemala
Panama vs. Haiti
Sunday, Jan. 21
Guatemala vs. Haiti
USA vs. Panama
PRESTON/JOHANN ROUND OUT THE 20: The U.S. contingent came one man closer to its full 20-player roster with the arrival of Hamburg SV's Preston Zimmerman. The Pasco, Wash., native made the long trip from Germany on Saturday, and will jump right into the mix as the team continues preparations for Haiti on Sunday. The squad will reach its full compliment of players when Bolton FC forward Johann Smith joins the team late on Sunday evening.
PRACTICE AT FORMER U.S. BASE: The U.S. team held its first practice in Panama, heading to a former U.S. military base for a brisk 60-minute session in the shadow of the Panama Canal. Rongen and the staff split the players into three teams of five, playing on a half field to goals that were slightly smaller than regulation. Tim Ward emphatically ended the game, burying a low-angle shot for the winning goal. While the field was a bit hard, the early evening practice helped the players get acclimated to the heat and humidity in Panama while also preparing their bodies for their first two games (Jan. 17 vs. Haiti and Jan. 19 vs. Guatemala) in which kick-off time is set for 6:30 p.m. ET.
BECKHAM TAKES Q’s NUMBER: With the pressure and intensity of a World Cup Qualifying Tournament, it's easy to get wrapped up in our own little world, whether it's here in Panama or during the first few days of camp in Sunrise. Such is not the case however, when arguably the most popular athlete in the world is making headlines. Who better to weigh in on David Beckham's huge signing with MLS than two of his new teammates, midfielder Quavas Kirk and defender Nathan Sturgis. They sat down with ussoccer.com to discuss Beck's impact on and off the field in L.A., and Kirk was especially eager to settle the debate over jersey No. 23, once and for all (listen).
JULES AND DANNY FROM PANAMA: In the first installment of what promises to be an entertaining (and hopefully somewhat informative) podcast series, Jules Valentin and Danny Szetela team up for an exclusive podcast from the hotel in Panama City. The duo gets fans caught up on the happenings from camp thus far, including their first training session from in the shadow of the Panama Canal and Sunday's "Cultural Tactical Excursion." Listen to the first episode and be sure to check back throughout qualifying for additional updates.
BLOG: Plenty has happened in the last 24 hours since departing Sunrise, so much in fact, that there's simply not enough room here to include all the details. Visit the U-20 World Cup Qualifying Blog for the stories between the story. We've got some hilarious banter from the team bus, the whispers from team meals and so much more. It's 24/7 coverage that you can't find anywhere else.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“Well then, put another shrimp on the Barbie!”
-- Midfielder Julian Valentin doing his best “Dumb & Dumber” line when he found out the two guys that he was talking to docking a sailboat near the Panama Canal were from New Zealand, knowing full well, like Jim Carey in the movie, he was off on the country.