CONCACAF is a grind at any age. Every continental competition for the USA promises matchups against arch-rival Mexico, soccer-crazed Central American nations and constantly-improving Caribbean countries.
For the first time this year, the USA faced off against the confederation’s best when the U-15 Boys’ National Team took second place at August’s CONCACAF U-15 Championship in Bradenton, Fla.
Coming off that experience, the rising age group will tackle their first matches at the U-17 level, coming at the 2017 Men's Nike International Friendlies. As they take on England, Netherlands and Brazil this week, it’s clear that the continental championship provided valuable experience for the age group.
“It was good to see the competition these boys will be facing for the next 20 years of their career,” said U-15 BNT head coach Dave van den Bergh. “It’s important for us to see the way our opponents in CONCACAF play and the way they go about facing us when we’re the favorites.”
The U-15 BNT is the first competitive team for players in the Youth National Team pathway and the initial level at which players are exposed to major international tournaments. Over the last two-year cycle, the U-15s competed in two events: last spring’s Torneo delle Nazioni in Italy, taking on the likes of England, Portugal, and Russia, and August’s regional championship, facing seven other top teams from the confederation.
While elite players are called to the U-14 Boys’ National Team, it’s considered a national development program. The U-14s compete in international friendlies, but it’s at the U-15 level that the real international programming begins.
“The World Cup for the U-17s is only two years from now,” said Van den Bergh, who is also serving as an assistant with the U-17 MNT during the Nike International Friendlies. “It’s very important to prep these guys, get them used to that kind of competition, and what a knockout competition is like. It’s very beneficial for U-17 Men’s National Team head coach John Hackworth that these guys have already gone through that.”
After taking home the Torneo delle Nazioni title, the U-15s turned their attention to CONCACAF. While the first edition of the U-15 Championship, in 2013, featured just 22 teams of smaller Central American and Caribbean federations, the 2017 iteration was the largest CONCACAF tournament at U-15 level, featuring 39 nations and over 700 youth players. Teams were sorted into three divisions based on qualification for the event and previous U-17 Championship results.
“CONCACAF is one of the biggest tournaments the U.S. plays in,” rising U-17 MNT midfielder Gianluca Busio said. “It’s good to go against opponents early and see how they play. You’re going to play them over and over for years. It’s great to get to know them, play with them and compete at a young age.”
Playing at a familiar training ground, IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., the USA was drawn into Group B alongside Canada (2-0), Costa Rica (4-1) and Trinidad & Tobago (6-0). The Americans cruised through the group stage, topping the quartet with an impressive plus-11 goal differential and trailing for only 12 minutes in the three games. Busio, a MLS Homegrown signing for Sporting Kansas City, starred in group play, scoring two braces in the first two games.
“In that tournament, he found the back of the net with so much ease,” Van den Bergh said. “He was very important to us. He’s extremely versatile, he’s on the rise. Hopefully he can keep grinding, keep working hard and know this is the beginning, not the end of his road.”
In the Semifinals, the USA took the lead against Panama in the sixth minute and never looked back, winning 3-0 to advance to the Final. There, the USA fell 2-0 to Mexico on a pair of late goals. It promises to be just the first of many showdowns for the age group against El Tri. The North American foes faced off at every CONCACAF youth championship this earlier year.
“It left them hungry because we didn’t win it,” Van den Bergh said. “It was a huge disappointment. We need to make sure we channel that the right way, make sure to learn from the experience.”
Now, the U-15 age group is transitioning to the U-17 level at this week’s Nike International Friendlies. They will spend the next two years competing and training in preparation for the 2019 CONCACAF U-17 Championship, where four teams will punch their tickets to the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup. With one journey through the CONCACAF gauntlet under their belts, this iteration of U-17s should be more prepared for the rigors ahead, starting with this week’s showdowns against world powers England, Netherlands and Brazil.
“It prepped them well for the Nike International Friendlies because it’s good international competition,” Van den Bergh said. “It’s very important for them, once they have to qualify for the World Cup (in 2019) it’s not the first time that they see that.”