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Yenith Bailey is the hero Concacaf needs right now, even if not the one it deserves

You’d be forgiven for not caring about the Concacaf Women’s Championship through the first week of play. The United States pummeled Mexico, 6-0 on opening night in what was supposed to be the Americans’ toughest group-stage game. Canada defeated Cuba, 12-0 on Monday and probably could have hit the 20 mark if they really wanted to.

Concacaf’s condensed, 14-day World Cup qualifying tournament is a focus group of self-fulfilling prophecies: Lesser-funded teams never show progress, so they don’t receive investment; teams never get better because their federations largely ignore them.

This inequality is the root of so many problems – some of which we’ve addressed before – and it also leads to a system in which we are robbed of exposure to talented players outside of the region’s big three. Panama goalkeeper Yenith Bailey is the epitome of this.

I won’t take claim to knowing a thing about Bailey before last week, and that’s probably the case for 99 percent of the people reading this. It almost has to be – Panama did not play a single official match between 2014 and August 2018, when zonal qualifying started for this World Cup.

If you haven’t been paying attention, you’re missing something special. Bailey has been a revelation for Panama, the star of this tournament for so many reasons. She is nowhere near the best player in the tournament, nor necessarily the best goalkeeper (although…). She doesn’t play for a big club or a country with much of any high-level soccer history, male or female.

She is, however, the brightest star for the tournament’s surprise team, a beacon of hope for what could be from Panama – or Trinidad and Tobago, or Jamaica or any number of smaller Concacaf nations, if they actually cared about their programs.

Bailey is the type of player who might exist in abundance in these smaller nations; she’s one of several Panamanians proving she has talent, if only someone would give her a platform.

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On this stage – which is, for so many, their one and only shot; a week every four years – Bailey has been pure entertainment. That isn’t her objective, but rather a welcome consequence of her ability on display. She has made 24 saves through three games, so many of them spectacular. She has shown a veteran poise and savvy, falling on the ball each time it enters her hands, to chip away at the clock. She has gobbled up crosses and, most heroically, saved a penalty kick that would have put Mexico ahead early in the first half of Wednesday’s match.

On a field with a pair of Ballon d’Or nominees and the best team in the world, Bailey was the player everyone was talking about – U.S. players included. She conceded five goals that night, and the score would have been much worse but for her actions.

Right here, right now, we need to appreciate this moment. Panama now has three opportunities – if necessary – to qualify for the Women’s World Cup for the first time. This epic story will carry on into the weekend, at least until next month, and perhaps into next year.

Bailey is likely to get plenty of calls from college coaches and professional scouts in the coming weeks. This 17-year-old might be the world’s next great goalkeeper, or she might just be having the tournament of her life. Bailey’s counterpart on Wednesday, Mexico’s Cecilia Santiago, played every minute in net for Mexico at the 2011 World Cup as a 16-year-old, and hasn’t come close to looking like the world’s next great goalkeeper.

Predicting these trajectories at such a young age is a difficult task, especially for a player we know nothing about – a player whose name we only learned a week ago. There are sensational young players in the U.S., Germany and Japan who quickly flame out, too, but it isn’t coincidence that those programs also groom plenty of young talents into all-world players. Those countries dedicate resources to women’s soccer. Time. Money. Training. Matches.

Yenith Bailey is the highlight of this Concacaf qualifying tournament. Her play alone has earned her this spotlight. It’s on FIFA, on Concacaf, on Panama’s federation to make sure she and her teammates get support going forward, whether that is for a playoff with Argentina, the 2019 World Cup, or the years and decades ahead. I have no idea what’s next for Yenith Bailey, but I sure as hell hope we get the opportunity find out.


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