Imagine heading into a soccer tournament that you’ve waited months, even years, to play in. It’s a tournament that will determine if you get to fulfill your dream of playing in a World Cup.
Imagine that you start off with a bang. A great victory. Quality soccer was played. Goals were scored. Momentum was gained.
Then, in a flash, it was over. Cut short. And you were on a plane home.
That’s what happened to the U.S. Under-17 Women’s National Team during the 2018 Concacaf Women’s U-17 Championship in Nicaragua, a competition that was abandoned on April 22 – after just six matches – due to dangerous civil unrest in the Central American country.
Although the U.S. players and staff, safely secured at the team hotel, were never in danger, and although Concacaf made the correct decision to send the teams home, there were tears spilled by the U.S. teenagers when they learned their tournament was over.
“It was definitely an unfortunate situation and you just can’t plan for something like that,” said U.S. U-17 WNT head coach Mark Carr. “Once it became clear that there were some issues, the safety of the players and their families was the number one priority. I was just very impressed with the level of care and togetherness our staff showed once everything went down. It was a fantastic team effort to pull up the stakes, so to speak, and get everyone back to the U.S. The players were very disappointed, but at the same time, they knew their dreams were just on hold.”
Fortunately, resiliency is a quality abundant in the young, and a re-energized U.S. team now gets to resume the World Cup qualifying tournament on home soil in Bradenton, Florida. The competition will pick up right where it left off, with nine games to be contested between June 6-12 at the IMG Academy Soccer Stadium.
The stakes are still the same: three berths from Concacaf to the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay are up for grabs.
“Since we left Nicaragua, the situation has brought us closer together, and in terms of our goals, nothing has changed,” said Carr. “It was a unique situation, but it happened, and we have to look forward. Any young player on this journey is going to face bumps in the road, and it’s about how you respond to those adversities. I believe our group is going to respond very well. We can’t wait to get to IMG, get back together and get on the field for our game against Bermuda.”
The resumed competition will feature only two teams in Group B, which completed two rounds of games in Nicaragua, eliminating the hosts and Puerto Rico, therefore those two countries will not come to Florida. Only one match day was completed in the USA’s Group B, so despite the USA’s rousing 4-0 win vs. Costa Rica that put them atop the group, there’s still everything to play for.
“It’s amazing how things work out sometimes,” Carr said. “It’s even more exciting to be able to play in front of family and our supporters. If anything, we’re even more motivated. It was eight teams for three spots. Now it’s six teams for three spots. FIFA is waiting on those final three teams, and we’ll do anything we have to do to get one of those.”
It’s safe to say that there will be some pent-up energy ready to be released when the U.S. team takes the field against Bermuda on June 6. It will have been 45 days since the teams were supposed to play in Managua.
That’s certainly a world record “rest period” between group matches during a World Cup qualifying tournament, and the U.S. players will be highly motivated to make it worth the wait.