The U.S. Under-17s are preparing for the upcoming CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament that kicks off on March 5 in Guatemala City, Guatemala. The U.S. opens the qualifying tournament on March 5 against Jamaica, before facing El Salvador on March 7 and wrapping up the qualifying tournament against the hosts, Guatemala, on March 9.
With John Ellinger and his team undergoing their final preparations in Sunrise, Fla., the U.S. Under-17 head coach took some time today to discuss his team and look ahead to Guatemala six days before the USA's opening qualifier against Jamaica.
How do you feel about the team as qualification approaches?
John Ellinger: I’m really confident right now as we approach qualifying. I feel that the team is ready for the challenge that lies ahead. In the last month we have faced some very good competition, playing the Men’s National Team, MLS teams and Costa Rica. We have learned a lot in the last month playing against teams of such a high caliber, and I really think that we are ready and prepared.
Compare the 2001 qualifying in St. Louis to what you’ll face in Guatemala.
JE: The differences are great. The comfort zone in St. Louis was great for this age group. We were staying in a comfortable hotel in familiar surrounding and playing in front of a pro-US crowd. It felt good and it helped us to finish with three wins in three games. Going into Guatemala will be quite different. We learned in 1999 when we traveled to Jamaica that in qualifying on the road you have to expect the unexpected. You can’t prepare for some of the things that will happen to you, you’ll be effect positively and negatively, and you just have to react. Can you replicate that environment? No. When we traveled to Costa Rica last month it felt like it was a qualifier and we tried to treat it like one. We had one game in hand and then let it slip away in a matter of three minutes. We learned from that and it will help us in Guatemala.
[Note: The U.S. traveled to Costa Rica for two games in January, losing 2-1 on January 29 and drawing 0-0 on January 31.]
What do you expect in Guatemala?
JE: I don’t expect any help from anyone, so I expect to go into the third game needing to win. In 1999 all we needed to do was get a win in the last game against Jamaica, and all they needed to do was get a tie. Playing in front of a home crowd, Jamaica was up for the game and had their juices flowing and held us to a draw that sent us to a playoff. From there we were able to qualify by topping El Salvador in the two-legged playoff. We fully expect a similar situation in Guatemala, where we need a win in the final game to advance.
What do you think your team needs to do be successful in Guatemala?
JE: The first 20 minutes of the first match is critical. I’ve found that certain players handle pressure differently, and this is definitely pressure. This is it. This is what we’ve been training for, this is what we have been building for. The first 20 minutes of the first game is the most important because at that point each and every team is still alive in the tournament. That’s when you get a feel for the tournament and it hits you that this is the real deal.
Ellinger discusses the two goalkeepers on his qualifying roster, Phil Marfuggi and Quentin Westberg …
"Phil Marfuggi is playing very well at the moment. He is a great shot stopper, is very strong in the air, and he has really improved his distribution abilities. He has played very well in the last month against pro teams and against Costa Rica to establish himself as our starter at this point. Quentin Westberg is a tremendous professional and a great leader. He is very technical and very proficient with his feet. He is the best goalkeeper we’ve had with his feet since I’ve been here. He is amazing the way he starts counters with his passing and his distribution. The hardest part for him is going from the pro environment to Bradenton, tactically playing within the system of this team.
"Quentin is very close to Phil as far as who is our starter, they are going back and forth. I feel these are two goalkeepers who are very close to each other and we are very comfortable with either one. These two have shared the international matches more than any other two goalkeepers we’ve had at this level and that is a compliment to them both."