Redemption has been two years in the making for the U.S. at the U-20 level. But those looking for this group to emerge as a regional force when CONCACAF qualifying kicks off next week in Puebla, Mexico, may have to wait a little longer.
It's a bit hard to figure what to make of this American U-20 team. The squad is pretty solid from front to back, and deep enough to be successful at this level. But four or five influential Europe-based players will be missing from next week's qualifying, meaning that anything could happen with Tab Ramos' squad -- including a second straight failure to make the U-20 World Cup.
On paper, this team doesn't look as strong as the last edition, which suffered from many of the same problems -- primarily absences of its best players and injuries -- in failing to make it out of the 2011 qualifying tournament in Guatemala.
"I don't think there's been one camp this year out of the eight camps that we ran where I can tell you we were able to get every player we wanted," said Ramos. "I feel comfortable that the players we have here are the best that we could get and the ones we've prepared the most."
But absences have become the norm for American age-level teams in CONCACAF qualifying of late -- the Olympic team also played the 2012 qualifiers without much of what would ultimately have been its best 11 players. What the U.S. hasn't managed, as yet, is to overcome those odds with a solid performance that allows the achievement of the principal goal of any qualifying tournament: to qualify (in this case, for the 2013 U-20 World Cup in Turkey).
Even short-handed, Ramos' team has the arguments to do that. Despite the absences of some big names on defense, such as John Anthony Brooks and Will Packwood, there's plenty of offensive firepower left to get the Americans through the group stage and into the quarterfinals.
To read the rest of the U.S. U-20 World Cup qualifying preview, you must be an ESPN Insider.