By Matthew Gourlie
Two years ago Rob Gale left the CONCACAF under-20 qualification tournament feeling his team didn’t do justice to the quality they had in their ranks.
Heading into this year’s 12-team tournament, Gale hopes he and Canada’s under-20 men’s program have learned the lessons of that experience and have placed themselves in the best possible position to succeed.
“In the last tournament we had to play Haiti and we were successful and played quite well. Fourty-three hours later we were on the field against Mexico. You have to make a ton of changes to your squad to physically recuperate. There was no question that affected the group,” said Gale, the head coach of the Canadian U20s at the 2015 CONCACAF Under-20 Championship. He will guide the team again when they open the tournament Friday in San José, Costa Rica.
Two years ago the team was in good form in November. They beat Russia and the United States and drew England away from home. However, by time the tournament came around in January there had been little contact with the players in the interim and the rigours of the new tournament format hindered their performance.
“What we also found was that number of games in difficult conditions — heat, the field conditions, etc. — our players, having been in the off-season, weren’t physically ready to perform to their capabilities, let alone to that level of demand of football,” Gale said.
“We had to address that and, credit to the Canadian Soccer Association, in our planning this year we deliberately back-ended the planning and the financing to allow us as much time as possible with the wider player pool.”
Gale held a nine-day training camp in Mexico that concluded on Feb. 4 to help ensure the fitness of as many members of his squad as possible. That camp featured 15 players and 13 of them are in the final squad of 20. The other seven players all play abroad and are in the midst of their club seasons.
The 2015 qualification tournament featured two pools of six and Canada failed to advance to the knockout stage after playing five matches in 13 days.
“I don’t blame the players two years ago for that. As a young player learning professional football, you don’t know the demands necessarily,” Gale said. “You haven’t been through pre-seasons from one season to the next where you know how hard you have to work to maintain that level of fitness and game readiness. That was a big learning experience for all of us and one we think we’ve addressed.”
As much as they tried to learn from the failures of the previous cycle, Gale doesn’t see that two-year cycle as a failure.
“In the last cycle we may not have qualified, but 12 of my wider player pool — in fact 10 that played in qualifying — went on to play in the Olympic of the senior men’s team,” Gale said. “It’s not the be-all and end-all. We would all agree that we would rather the players all continue in professional football and learn from every experience and continue to move into the senior team.”
The tournament format has changed once again with the top two teams in each of the three four-team groups advancing to a second group of three. The top two teams in each of those three-team groups will advance to the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in South Korea this summer.
Canada opens the tournament against Honduras before facing Mexico and Antigua and Barbuda to conclude group play.
Given the relative pedigree of their other two group opponents, the Honduras match looms large. After two years of preparation, Gale knows that success and failure often comes down to 90 minutes.
“It’s a snapshot in time,” he said of the tournament.
Qualification is the obvious goal, but Gale never loses sight of the big picture when it comes to development. A trip to the U20 World Cup means more camps and more significant matches under pressure. However, he also wants to make sure the players with the most potential are the ones rewarded with opportunities.
“As a youth coach you always have to take the bigger picture into perspective,” Gale said. “We have to be guided towards the ones we believe will have a future with our senior men’s program. There’s no point in taking players on a short-term fix and just trying to qualify for a tournament. In term of the bigger picture we would be no further ahead.”
The Canadian squad has four players who are born in 1999 who would be eligible for the next U20 cycle as well. A fifth 1999-born player, Ballou Tabla from the Montréal Impact, refused the invitation to join the team according to Gale. Tabla had been in four camps with the U20 team this cycle.
Each man on the squad played an under-20 friendly in Central America this cycle as the team held camps in Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama to aid the preparation for the tournament.
“If you look at our results over two years: we don’t lose back-to-back games in international football, which is a great testament given the places we’ve been and the opposition we’ve faced,” Gale said. “We know we have the right idea, the right game models, technology, game tactics and everything else. Tournament football comes down to readiness at that time.”
Whatever the results over the next 17 days Gale wants to walk away knowing he did everything in their power to help his team succeed.