In Part 2 of the U-20 World Cup preview, here's a look at some of the teams and themes that will provide talking points in the tournament.
Teams To Watch
1. Brazil -- Just like its senior counterparts, the Brazilian U-20 team has to be strong favorites for this tournament. Although you can always question how much importance the Brazilian federation attaches to this tournament, there's no doubt that the players themselves are keen to win. (Former Brazil striker Bebeto has often said that the U-20 World Cup trophy he won in 1983 was more meaningful to him than the 1994 World Cup.) Despite missing the services of three superb midfielders, Manchester United's Anderson, Arsenal's Denilson and Liverpool's Lucas (injured in training this week), the Brazilians are still loaded with world-class, young talent at every spot. If the likes of Alexandre Pato wasn't enough on offense, players such as Flamengo's Renato (touted by some as the new Rivaldo) add even more firepower.
2. Argentina -- I doubt there's any other world power that takes these international youth tournaments as seriously as Argentina which has won five titles previously (in '79, '95, '97, '01 and '05). Once again, Argentina will field a very strong team. Even so, the squad took a hit when Real Madrid proved reluctant to release Gonzalo Higuain for the U-20s, but in Sergio Aguero and Mauro Zarate, Argentina still has the most lethal striker pairing in the tournament. Racing's Matias Sanchez will pull the strings for the Argentineans in midfield.
3. Spain -- The Spanish field the bulk of the squad that triumphed in the European U-19 championships and represent Europe's best chance of unseating the South American powerhouses. Defensively the team relies on central defender Gerard Pique, a highly-touted youngster on Manchester United's books and a player who impressed in La Liga this season on loan with Zaragoza. Offensively the team revolves around the tandem of Juan Manuel Mata and Alberto Bueno, a pure goal scorer who led all players at the U-19 Euro Championships in that category.
4. Mexico -- This current crop of Mexican talent has been touted as Mexico's "Golden Generation." So far they've lived up to that billing by winning the U-17 World Cup last year. Mexico disappointed in qualifying, but with world-class talent such as Giovanni Dos Santos and Carlos Vela, and an able supporting cast that includes standouts like defender Patricio Araujo and midfielder Jorge Hernandez, this team has the ability to mount a real challenge.
5. Nigeria -- African teams have traditionally been strong on the youth stage, finishing as runner-ups in three of the past seven tournaments. Nigeria looks to be the pick of the African contingent this year although the team lacks the star power of players of the ilk of John Obi Mikel and Taye Taiwo who helped the Flying Eagles to a second-place finish in 2005. This year's squad will rely heavily on Emmanuel Sarki and Ezekiel Bala, but considering the team's overall pace, flair and explosiveness, Nigeria will present a threat to anyone it faces.
As for the U.S., it's fielding a strong squad with some observers believing this to be the finest collection of attacking talent the U.S. has ever sent to the youth World Cup. That attacking depth took a hit earlier this week with the ankle injury suffered in training by Johann Smith, which will rule the Bolton attacker out of the tournament (he'll be replaced by Preston Zimmerman). However, the U.S. squad has quality throughout the lineup with players such as goalkeeper Chris Seitz and defender Nathan Sturgis sure to attract the interest of European scouts following the tournament. The U.S. team's outlook, however, is not all that promising with elimination in the early stages a very likely possibility. Assuming the U.S. finishes second in Group D to Brazil and the rest of the draw plays to form, the U.S. will meet Argentina in the round of 16, with a matchup against Mexico in the quarterfinals to follow if it survives that.
Story lines to follow
1. Will Freddy Adu have a breakout performance?
At times it's not easy being Freddy Adu, carrying as he does the heavy weight of expectations that have followed him since he was a 14-year-old prodigy. Adu was never going to live up to the misguided hype that proclaimed him to the next coming of Pelé, Maradona and Zidane all rolled into one. However, the problem hasn't been so much that he has yet to show signs of developing into that caliber of player -- he's still only 18 after all -- but the simple fact that he has yet to even emerge as a standout in MLS. Entering this season with a new team, Real Salt Lake, he was expected to flourish as a playmaker but it's been more of the same -- flashes of brilliance but a general inability to impose his will on the game to the degree that U.S. and MLS fans would like to see.
Adu knows that the U-20 tournament is his chance to set the stage and restore his diminishing reputation on the world scene. A masterful performance as the creative hub of the U.S. team would help restore that. Don't bet on it necessarily happening. Adu will be going up against several world-class peers, most of whom are already dominant stars in their own domestic leagues, which puts them far ahead of him in that respect.
2. How useful of an indicator is the U-20 World Cup as a predictor of senior national team success?
Simply put, it's not, or else Argentina, the unquestioned king of world youth soccer with four titles in the past six tourneys, wouldn't have gone 15 years without a major trophy on the senior level. Or who can forget Portugal's famed and ultimately much-maligned "Golden Generation" team, which consisted of Figo and Rui Costa among others, that snared back-to-back youth titles in '89 and '91, yet chronically underachieved at the senior level.
The reality is the playing field is often distorted by the absence of many of the world's top young stars, particularly those who have already broken through as starters in the professional ranks for top club teams. For example, this year's U-20 World Cup will be missing the transcendent talents of players like Argentina's Lionel Messi and Brazil's Anderson, both of whom will be playing in the Copa America instead. That said, there'll still be a plethora of talented players on display, and this tournament is still a chance to spot stars of the future. For instance, a quick glance at the 1995 tourney roster in Qatar shows the likes of Fernando Morientes, Raul, Juan Pablo Sorin, Mark Viduka and Hidetoshi Nakata as participants.
3. Why Canada as a venue?
With enthusiasm for the U-20 World Cup relatively lukewarm for some of the previous tournaments, even those held in traditional soccer-mad regions, it was considered a major folly by some to hold this year's event in Canada. Think again, U-20 tickets have sold like wildfire (a reported 750,000 have been sold) and the tournament will be one of the largest single-sports events in Canadian history. Add the fact that MLS expansion team FC Toronto is currently enjoying the support of a rabid fan base, and it appears that soccer is turning the corner in Canada.
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPNsoccernet and also writes a blog Armchair Musings. He can be reached at: email@example.com.