World Cup qualifying and CONCACAF’s U-20 results

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It’s been a theme throughout U.S.-centric coverage of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, just as it was a theme during last year’s Olympic qualifying tournament: It’s important for the U.S. to do well in these tournaments. Winning games gives players a chance to gain valuable experience, whether it’s the London games (which the U-23s missed out on) or the U-20 World Cup (where the U.S. will compete this summer).

I’m not so sure. I don’t agree, and I don’t disagree. It just seems like the margins for error are so small in these tournaments. They represent such a tiny amount of their actual development time, I can see the argument that we make way too much out of U-level results.

Take the Olympic qualifying tournament, for example. Also consider the lead up to it. The U.S. beat Mexico 2-0 before the tournament and only lost one match under Caleb Porter. And while that match looks like an outlier in the nine-or-so matches the U-23 played, the timing of the loss meant they didn’t go to London. Instead, players spent July and August with their clubs.

I’m going to dig into this a little. As I write, I don’t know what I’ll find, but I’m going to go back through CONCACAF’s U-20 history and see if teams that finished in the top two of qualifying went on to make subsequent World Cups. The idea here it to try to look at whether U-level success matches senior level accomplishments.

Why the top two? Because there’s a large swatch of CONCACAF U-20 history where the region didn’t have a real tournament. Instead, there were two sub-tournaments that determined which teams qualified for the U-20 World Cup.

Obviously, this isn’t scientific or exhaustive. It’s just a thing – a step, if you will. For some teams, like Mexico, perpetual qualification for World Cups means we’ll learn little from their underage successes, but for other nations, we might see them suddenly start qualifying for World Cups after U-success. We may also see U-success mean absolutely nothing.

Here’s a huge chart showing what I found. Feel free to skip to the conclusions (italics – hosted World Cup, bold – qualified for a World Cup):

U-20 Championship Year Top Two Finishers Next World Cup World Cup after that
1962 1: Mexico
2: Guatemala
1966
MEX: Group stage
GUA: DNQ
1970
MEX: Quarters
GUA: DNQ
1964 1: El Salvador
2: Honduras
1966
ESA: DNQ
HON: DNQ
1970
ESA: Group stage
HON: DNQ
1970 1: Mexico
2: Cuba
1974
MEX: DNQ
CUB: DNQ
1978
MEX: Group stage
CUB: DNQ
1973 1: Mexico
2: Guatemala
1974
MEX: DNQ
GUA: DNQ
1978
MEX: Group stage
GUA: DNQ
1974 1: Mexico
2: Cuba
1978
MEX: Group stage
CUB: DNQ
1982
MEX: DNQ
CUB: DNQ
1976 1: Mexico
2: Honduras
1978
MEX: Group stage
HON: DNQ
1982
MEX: DNQ
GUA: DNQ
1978 1: Mexico
2: Canada
1982
MEX: DNQ
CAN: DNQ
1986
MEX: Quarters
CAN: Group stage
1980 1: Mexico
2: United States
1982
MEX: DNQ
USA: DNQ
1986
MEX: Quarters
USA: DNQ
1982 1: Honduras
2: United States
1986
HON: DNQ
USA: DNQ
1990
HON: DNQ
USA: Group stage
1984 1: Mexico
2: Canada
1986
MEX: Quarters
CAN: Group stage
1990
MEX: DQ
CAN: DNQ
1986 1: Canada
2: United States
1990
CAN: DNQ
USA: Group stage
1994
CAN: DNQ
USA: Second round
1988 1: Costa Rica
2: Mexico
1990
CRC: Second round
MEX: DQ
1994
CRC: DNQ
MEX: Second round
1990 1: Mexico
2: Trinidad and Tobago
1994
MEX: Second round
TT: DNQ
1998
MEX: Second round
TT: DNQ
1992 1: Mexico
2: United States
1994
MEX: Second round
USA: Second round
1998
MEX: Second round
USA: Group stage
1994 1: Honduras
2: Costa Rica
1998
HON: DNQ
CRC: DNQ
2002
HON: DNQ
CRC: Group stage
1996 1: Canada
2: Mexico
1998
CAN: DNQ
MEX: Second round
2002
CAN: DNQ
MEX: Second round
1998 A: United States
B: Mexico
2002
USA: Quarters
MEX: Second round
2006
USA: Group stage
MEX: Second round
2001 A: Costa Rica
B: Canada
2002
CRC: Group stage
CAN: DNQ
2006
CRC: Group stage
CAN: DNQ
2003 A: Panama
B: Canada
2006
PAN: DNQ
CAN: DNQ
2010
PAN: DNQ
CAN: DNQ
2005 A: United States
B: Canada
2006
USA: Group stage
CAN: DNQ
2010
USA: Second round
CAN: DNQ
2007 A: United States
B: Mexico
2010
USA: Second round
MEX: Second round
2009 1: Costa Rica
2: United States
2010
CRC: DNQ
USA: Second round
2011 1: Mexico
2: Costa Rica
2013 Mexico, United States

And exhale.

Let me aggregate all that for you:

  • When a team wins CONCACAF’s U-20 tournament, they’ve appeared in the next World Cup 50 percent of the time. They appear in the World Cup after that 55 percent of the time. Exclude hosts that automatically qualified for World Cups (and Mexico’s 1990 disqualification), and those percentages go down to 48 and 50.
  • CONCACAF U-20 runner-ups have only qualified for the next World Cup 36 percent of the time. Forty percent of the time, however, they’ve made the World Cup that followed. Accounting for hosting duties (and Mexico in 1990), those percentages become 35 and 33.

It’s really difficult to see why winning these tournaments is so important. Of course, you want to win these competitions, but in so far as it’s a harbinger of your World Cup fate, there isn’t a conclusive trend.

Take Canada. The Canadians have not qualified for a World Cup since 1986, and given their finish at the 1984 championships, there was reason to think they had talent coming through that could get them there. But Canada has finished in the top two four times since, yet they haven’t been back to the show. Even if 1984 was a harbinger, it’s unclear their more general U-20 results tell us much.

We know that Mexico and the United States have been perpetual World Cup qualifiers in recent years, yet there are three instances since 1994 where they failed to finish in the top two. It hasn’t influenced their qualifying record.

In a way, this all makes sense. These players spend a dominant amount of their development time with their clubs, and while that doesn’t mean their quality won’t come through in their tournaments, it’s also possible that these small samples of games accumulated every one or two years just aren’t that important.

If you were picking CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers four-to-six years ahead of time, you’d probably be better served picking Mexico, the U.S., and Costa Rica every cycle rather than consider any U-20 results.