Associated Press / Hassan Ammar, File|Associated Press / Gero Breloer, File

Last Saturday, Jan. 24, was a crucial date in the CONCACAF Under-20 men’s soccer tournament in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Group A winner Mexico came up against Group B winner Panama in the 2015 CONCACAF Under-20 championship, while the USA was in a must-win battle against El Salvador for a berth in the FIFA Under-20 Men’s World Cup slated for New Zealand next summer. Mexico and the USA prevailed.

After a hard-fought battle between Mexico and an emerging and talented Panama team that lasted two overtime periods, Mexico came away with a 4-2 win in penalty kicks to capture the 2015 CONCACAF title in this age group; it was Mexico’s third consecutive title in the event and 13th overall. The CONCACAF tournament also qualifies the top four teams for the FIFA tournament, which means, despite the championship loss, Panama, along with second-place group finishers USA and Honduras, will join Mexico to represent CONCACAF in New Zealand at the FIFA Under-20 Men’s World Cup in June.

Mexico forged ahead, 1-0, on Guillermo Martinez’s header off a corner kick in the 50th minute and continued to lead for most of the game; it was the first goal scored against Panama during the tournament. The talented and relentless Panamanians kept playing, searching for the equalizer, which came in the 70th minute when Fidel Escobar registered a penalty kick after Ismael Diaz was fouled in the penalty area.

Both teams battled tirelessly through two overtime periods in a well-played game. Mexico won on penalties from Martinez, Alejandro Diaz, Jose Robles and Erick Aguirre; Escobar and Diaz hit penalties for Panama.

In another game at the same venue, the USA, which got off to a slow start in the tournament, had put together late wins versus Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala in earlier games to put the team in a position to battle El Salvador for the second place in Group B. Goals from Ben Spencer and Paul Arriola gave the Americans a 2-0 win.

The Tab Ramos-coached U.S. team depended on its bench for the win. Spencer gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the 37th minute off an assist by Emerson Hyndman. The lead lasted through halftime. Ramos, a former U.S. international forward, went to his bench and replaced Spencer with Arriola just after the half. Arriola combined with another second half substitute, Junior Flores, to ensure the win with the second goal in the 68th minute. Arriola tallied off Flores’ cross when Bradford Jamieson’ initial shot was fruitless. U.S. goalkeeper Zack Steffen saved a penalty kick that would have tied the game for El Salvador in the 53rd minute.

Honduras captured a berth for its sixth appearance in the FIFA tournament with a 2-1 win over Guatemala. Michael Chirinos and Albert Elis scored to propel Honduras. Chirinos scored in the 39th minute from seven yards with a left-footed shot, and then the forward beat two Guatemalan defenders and crossed the ball to Elis for an easy tap-in for the winning goal. Guatemala pulled a goal back in the 74th minute through Diego Alvarez’s free kick from 35 yards, but it wasn’t enough.

United States under-20 soccer team head coach Tab Ramos listens to the U.S. national anthem prior to a match against Spain.
Associated Press / Gero Breloer, File