GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala – After months of preparation, the United States U-20 national team arrives in Central America with a spot in the World Cup on the line.
The Americans need to advance from the three-team Group B, a relatively simple task on paper, and then win a quarterfinal match in which anything could happen in order to reach their eighth straight age group World Cup. Thomas Rongen's squad will be favored in every game except possibly the final but can't afford to lose concentration.
The first challenge is tiny Suriname on Tuesday (8 pm ET, ESPN Deportes, ESPN3.com). The smallest sovereign nation in South America grabbed the last CONCACAF Championship slot by prevailing in the second round of Caribbean qualifying. Harold Deyl's squad reached the regional tournament for the first time since 1990, an achievement in itself. They won't be expecting much more and should be overwhelmed by one of the most talented American squads ever.
USAThomas Rongen didn't get all the players he wanted – Adrian Ruelas, Alex Zahavi Fabian Hurzeler and Joe Gatt stayed behind due to club commitments and/or personal matters – but the coach has plenty of talent with him in Guatemala. He has some college players but is hoping to eventually boast an entirely professional roster.
"It's a good amount," Rongen said. "It's the way it should be. Eventually this team should be all pro. It continues the development in general. MLS is making the level better and better. We're seeing the fruits of our labor."
The goal in Central America is two-fold: qualify for the World Cup and win the tournament, something the US haven't done since 1982. (And even that victory only came retroactively after Honduras were disqualified.)
With Bobby Wood, Joe Gyau, Omar Salgado and Conor Doyle, the US boast a potent attack. Gale Agbossoumonde and D.C. United’s budding star Perry Kitchen will organize an imposing back line. Tuesday's match and the subsequent one against Panana are simply tune-ups for the quarterfinal. Anything less than a convincing victory would be disappointing.
On some level, just getting to Guatemala is the real victory for Suriname. A spot in the quarterfinals would be an extra bonus. After suffering a pair of 2-1 defeats to Trinidad and Tobago in the first round of Caribbean qualifying playoffs, Deyl's side regrouped and convincingly won the round robin with Bermuda, Netherlands Antilles and Guyana.
It's a battle for second place in Group B, so the real key against the Americans is limiting the loss. A low score line – a one- or two-goal defeat – would give them hope that a draw with Panama could get them through to the next round. A lopsided affair, however, means they will have to beat the Central American side face-to-face.
As a result, Suriname will concede the majority of the possession, pack in tightly and hope to hang on. It's not the most inspiring strategy, but it's the one that will produce the best results against a team that's superior in every way.
United States: Bobby Wood
Watch him fly up and down the wing and you see a potential game-breaker. Wood continues to improve in Germany, getting stronger every time he returns to the American fold. This could be his breakout tournament.
Suriname: Stefano Rijssel
The forward netted seven goals during qualification, leaving him one shy of the top spot. He's shown a knack for the spotlight, tallying two as Suriname came from behind to defeat Bermuda and earn their way to Guatemala. If the underdogs are going to break through, Rijssel will have to be involved.
US Projected Starting XI
MacMath; Valentin, Agbossoumonde, Kitchen, Veeder; Powers, Lletget, Rowe; Wood, Salgado, Gyau
Suriname Projected Starting XI
Lamsberg; Faerber, Nibte, Kaise, Veira, Pinas, Misidjang, Plet, Martin, Afiankoi, Rijssel
Suriname simply can't keep up. They may keep the match close for a while, but the US are too strong, too deep, too talented and too prepared. The professionalism of the players will shine through as they don't look past their first game with one eye on the quarterfinal.
Suriname 0-4 United States
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.