The United States U-17 national team kicks off their 2011 CONCACAF Championship against Cuba on Monday (3 pm ET, follow at USSoccer.com).
A rematch of the Americans’ opening game of the 2009 tournament, which the US won 5-0, this one will give Wilmer Cabrera's team an opportunity to stake their claim as the best in Group B.
Led by striker Mario Rodriguez, who is coming off an ankle injury, and the backline duo of Mobi Fehr and Crew Soccer Academy product Andrew Souders, the US should dispatch their opponents with ease.
Cabrera has been focused on keeping his boys’ concentration at a peak: He took the side on a weeklong training trip to Jamaica in January. That preparation should benefit the young group as they will be somewhat acclimated to the weather and the surroundings as they line up in the most important match of their lives.
There is no obvious star on this US squad, as there was on previous rosters (Donovan in ‘99, Adu in ‘03), but they might be a more complete team than the one that went undefeated during the '09 event. Cabrera has options at virtually every position and will be able to shuffle his line up throughout the tournament.
Against Cuba, he'll choose the first team, one that should look similar to the starting XI that took the field against Jamaica in January, a 2-1 win with goals from Esteban Rodriguez and Alfred Koroma. The main change looks like Mario Rodriguez, and recently signed Home Grown player for the LA Galaxy Jack McBean should be up top, as well.
It's been almost 20 years since Cuba last reached the U-17 World Cup, and Israel Blake's team will have a difficult time earning a ticket to Mexico. Goalkeeper Sandy Sanchez earned two clean sheets—including a solid 0-0 draw against Trinidad and Tobago—as the team went undefeated in qualification for the championship, but finishing in the top four will be hard.
Captain Daniel Saez will attempt to lead the defensive-minded squad against the American attack, with help from backliners David Solier and Emmanuel Aliaga. Israel's side is playing for second place in Group B, so keeping a low scoreline will be key as advancing to the quarterfinal round could come down to goal differential.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
United States: Alejandro Guido
The midfielder keys the US attack. He was at the center of the squad's best passing sequences against South Korea at the Nike International Friendlies in December, and the side struggled to create after he came off with an injury against Brazil (although Colorado Rapids Academy product Dillon Serna can provide cover for short periods).
Cuba: Dayron Perez
The attacker scored three of his team's four goals during qualification for the tournament. He found the net twice against Bermuda and once against St. Kitts & Nevis. He'll face a tougher challenge beating the American backline, but if anyone is going to score for Cuba, it will be Perez.
US Projected Starting XI
Cuba Projected Starting XI
Cabrera has his team ready and prepared. It won't be an easy game—none in the tournament will be—but the US should boost their record against Cuba to 4-0-2.
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.