U.S. U17 Survives Big Test in Guatemala

U.S. U17 Survives Big Test in Guatemala
by Travis Clark
February 22, 2023
Players featured in this article:
Cruz Medina |  2024
F | San Jose

Part of the value in fielding youth national teams is to enhance and accelerate each player’s development.

On Tuesday night in Guatemala City, the U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team faced a huge test. In a do-or-die game at the Concacaf Championship, the U.S. played the hosts with a World Cup spot on the line.

Facing a relentless crowd buoying Guatemala, the team held on for a 5-3 win, with plenty to take away from the victory – beyond just a spot at this year’s youth World Cup.

“Being 16 years old, and experiencing that for the first time, I thought that the boys showed incredible composure, personality, they were not fazed,” head coach Gonzalo Segares told reporters in a Wednesday video call. “Obviously, I think that through the game, the Guatemala team energized themselves from the crowd. So we were not only playing the 11 players on the field, but also that 12th player, that was the crowd and kudos to them, because they never stopped cheering, they never stopped pushing for the team.”

Added midfielder Cruz Medina: “I've never played in an environment like that. That was completely different. That was something that I dream about… there was a point in the game where they flashed all their flashlights. And you could see the whole stadium [and] it looked like stars. It was amazing to play in that environment.”

There was certainly more than a share of harrying moments for the U.S. with the stakes so high. After quickly scoring early in the second half, Guatemala answered right back. With slightly more than 15 minutes left in the game and the U.S. up 4-2, the hosts scored again to make it extremely tight.

Like the team did earlier in the half, they responded by sticking to the game plan. Taha Habroune’s goal made it a 5-3 game (the final score), exemplifying the team’s sturdy response and willingness to try and keep the ball.

“Every time that Guatemala came back and scored a goal, they were not fazed with it,” Segares said. “And they kept staying with our game plan, with the style of play, still brave to play out of the back. And that's how we were able to create a few more of our chances and we were able to put the game away as well.”

The approach to play a possession-oriented and pressing style has permeated through the men’s youth age group. It’s been implemented in the team’s camps to prepare, spanning trips through South America and Europe.

Even in the face of a hostile crowd and challenging game state, Segares was pleased his team tried to keep the ball.

“We practice it every day,” he said. “And it doesn't matter who we face, we're going to try to do the same. And I was extremely proud of the boys and how, [on Tuesday] under difficult conditions, a bumpy pitch. Sometimes they gave me a heart attack when the ball was playing back, and it was bouncing all the way. But, you know, they kept playing through it.”

World Cup qualification is now secure, the fourth consecutive time and 17th appearance overall. And while that is certainly going to come into focus, there’s a more immediate goal on the horizon: winning the current Concacaf Championship.

The semifinal is slated for Friday against Puerto Rico or Canada. A win there sets up a possible matchup against familiar rivals Mexico. Segares stressed the importance of turning the page on Tuesday night’s game and preparing swiftly for another matchup – and the possibility of two final games over the span of three days, with the final for Sunday.

Medina emphasized that approach as the team enters the final stretch of the competition.

“We qualified for the World Cup,” he said. “That was our first goal. And now just forget about it. Next game is either Puerto Rico or Canada. It's just us keeping our feet on the ground, staying humble and being ready for the next game. Hopefully the next two.”

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