By Matthew Gourlie
Rob Gale and the Canadian Soccer Association has put in a lot of work to broaden the player pool for its national teams.
The fruits of some of that labour was evident when the CSA released its 20-man roster for the CONCACAF under-20 qualification tournament that begins Friday.
“As you see in world football, the number of players who can represent different countries continues to grow as the world seems to get smaller,” said Gale, the head coach of the Canadian under-20 men’s national team. “It’s vitally important that we look to unearth talent in every corner of the globe.”
The process of identifying talent has become much more clearly defined by the CSA. From the point of first contact with the players at the age of 14, the CSA has been building and diligently maintaining its database of young players. Coaches and scouts add their analysis on each player at each viewing as they work their way through the levels of the youth program.
“There’s been a ton of work behind the scenes in the three years I’ve been involved in the technical department… to make sure we cast our eyes and ears as far and wide as we can and to make sure we follow up on every single lead that comes to us,” Gale said. “I think we’ve done a much better job of that in this cycle.”
Identifying players is one thing, enticing them into the program can be its own challenge as well.
In the current squad Kris Twardek accumulated 11 caps with the Czech Republic at the U17 level, Emmanuel Zambazis earned a pair of Greek U19 caps and Diego Gutiérrez has been in Chilean youth team camps.
“When those opportunities arise, we’re ready to strike. It’s not like a sudden late call-up, it’s been years of work behind the scenes to allow these opportunities to happen,” Gale said when asked specifically about the inclusion of Gutiérrez, whose twin brother Cristian started all four of Chile’s games at the South American U20 qualifiers in January.
“It’s a process. It takes a long time and a lot of discussion. It takes a lot of going back-and-forth with the players, the families, various agents or directors of football at clubs to try to convince these boys that they should — first and foremost — experience us and then make their decisions from that,” Gale added.
The 39-year-old manager said drawing Twardek and Gutiérrez into the fold was a three-year process. After so much courting, it is then imperative to make a strong first impression. Gale is confident that they are doing that and the feedback they have been receiving from the players backs that up.
“They’ve been very impressed by the level of professionalism and the support group that we have from the sports science team to the way we conduct our business on and off of the field,” Gale said. “We feel very confident that once a player comes in with us they’ll have every opportunity to enjoy their experience, first and foremost, and feel valued by the Canadian Soccer Association.”
There haven’t been many stones left unturned as Gale and his staff named a roster that featured players plying their trade for clubs in nine different countries. There would have been 10 countries represented had goalkeeper Sebastian Breza not been called back by Palermo from Italy’s Serie A just before the roster was submitted. Breza has been on the bench for Palermo on consecutive weekends.
The final roster also features eight players from Canada’s Major League Soccer clubs. For the past two seasons those clubs have seen their reserve teams play a full schedule in the United Soccer League.
“They’re getting valuable minutes and learning their trade,” Gale said. “They’re competing. There’s no substitute for games. The player readiness, the match fitness, the experience, the decision-making and the sharpness you need comes from playing games.
“They’re playing against older, physical, stronger and more experienced players and that can only benefit.”
Gale spoke multiple times about the need to be not only playing first-team minutes, but also be in an environment at a young age where you are competing in training for first-team opportunities every day.
To that end, he said having the long-rumoured Canadian national league come to pass would be “a big game-changer for us” in getting players ready for the grind of being a professional at an earlier age.
“There’s a big difference between being in a professional environment and becoming a professional footballer,” Gale said. “The understanding of what it means to go through 20 or 30 games in a season and compete for first-team spots and the rigours of that and what you learn as a player, those are absolutely vital experiences that we don’t have enough of for Canadian players.”
Gale said that adding any number of new Canadian pro teams — with a roster of say 20-25 and skewed towards Canadian talent ideally — opens up the player pool at all levels.
“A Canadian domestic league would provide those opportunities and provide competition for those players to push through. If you’re getting games between the ages of 16 to 18, then your readiness at 19 is considerably different than it is now,” he said.
Unfortunately for Gale, the player who made the biggest domestic professional breakthrough last season won’t be available. Shamit Shome, who made 26 appearances with FC Edmonton in the NASL in 2016, is out with an injury. The seven USL players on the roster logged a combined 9,072 minutes in 131 matches last season. Zanatta, Twardek, Zambazis and Gutierrez have also played professional first-team minutes abroad.
“If you look at the number of first-team games that our players have played in, meaningful games, it’s very, very low. It is a testament to our boys that when they compete they’re always competitive,” Gale said. “We believe we have the quality here, but we need to provide the opportunity and make it their profession.”
In addition to Shome, who is now with the Montréal Impact, keepers Philip Di Bennardo (Toronto FC II) and James Pantemis (FC Montréal) and FC Montréal midfielder David Choinière were ruled out due to injury.
Canada also has three players — Matt Constant, Marcus Godinho and Dayonn Harris — on stand-by in case of an injury on the 20-man squad.
Canadian squad for the CONCACAF under-20 qualification tournament:
Goalkeepers: Thomas HASAL (99) Vancouver Whitecaps Academy, Dayne ST. CLAIR (97) Univ. of Maryland/USA.
Central Defenders: Thomas MEILLEUR-GIGUÈRE (97) FC Montréal, Kamal MILLER (97) Syracuse Univ./USA, Kosovar SADIKI (98) Stoke City U23/ENG.
Fullbacks: Gabriel BOAKYE (98) FC Energie Cottbus U19/GER, Zachary BRAULT-GUILLARD (98) Olympique Lyonnais/FRA, Kadin CHUNG (98) Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2.
Midfielders: Tristan BORGES (98) SC Heerenveen/NED, Dante CAMPBELL (99) Toronto FC II, Aidan DANIELS (98) Toronto FC II, Liam FRASER (98) Toronto FC II, Diego GUTIÉRREZ (97) CD Palestino/CHI, Kris TWARDEK (97) Braintree Town/ENG (on loan from Millwall FC/ENG), Emmanuel ZAMBAZIS (97) Iraklis 1908 Thessaloniki FC/GRE.
Forwards: Shaan HUNDAL (99) Toronto FC II, Liam MILLAR (99) Liverpool FC U18/ENG, Aymar SIGUE (97) Penn State/USA, Luca UCCELLO (97) Toronto FC II, Dario ZANATTA (97) Queen’s Park FC/SCO (on loan from Heart of Midlothian/SCO).