By Matthew Gourlie
Canadian success or failure in youth tournaments has typically come down to one match.
However, that match is usually their final match, not their first.
Canada and Honduras meet each other at Estadio Saprissa in San José, Costa Rica to open the CONCACAF Under-20 qualifying tournament Friday (6:30 p.m. ET, CONCACAF’s facebook live). While the winning side will have plenty of work left to do, the winner of the match has already a huge step towards qualifying for the Under-20 World Cup tournament.
The Canadian team had five days in Costa Rica to prepare for Honduras, they also made the most of an eight-day camp in Mexico with 13 members of the squad present less than two weeks ago.
“It’s a good match-up,” Canadian U20 head coach Rob Gale said of Honduras. “We feel confident in how we’re going to approach this. We’ve done a lot of work behind the scenes in terms of scouting and the preparation for the group games. The players will be well-versed and ready come game time.”
The top two teams in each group will advance to the final round. Canada is grouped with Honduras, three-time defending champion Mexico and heavy underdogs Antigua and Barbuda.
“All of these games it will come down to getting the tactics right and the application of those tactics on the day,” Gale said.
Should Canada advance from Group A, they would need to finish in the top two in a final three-team group to qualify for the Under-20 World Cup in South Korea.
Canada traveled to Honduras in November and played the Catrachos in a pair of friendlies that resulted in a 2-1 Canadian win and a 0-0 draw.
“You can’t take too much from that,” Gale said. “We know the (Honduran) squad, we know the players. They will have brought different players in. We also have quite a different look to our squad.”
What Canada can expect from Honduras is a team full of familiarity that plays a fast and aggressive style.
“They train Monday to Friday every day with their national team program between (Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula). They’re very much like a club side. They know each other very well,” Gale said. “They’re very direct and very physical. They will look to press and harry us. You can see the work and time they’ve spent together. They’re a very co-ordinated unit. They’re a difficult team to play against because of that. They know their roles and Carlos (Tábora), the coach there, has done a very good job with them.
“They are going to be at us, physically, from the very first whistle. They look to get the ball forward very quickly and get around the second balls. They can be very direct in their play. It’s going to be important for us to be ready physically for that challenge and the speed of the game and the style of the game that is going to come at us.”
Which isn’t to say that Canada wants to mirror their opponent’s style. Gale wants to be sure they’re ready for the battle, but he also wants them to impose their game under that pressure and show their quality.
“We also have to be brave and confident in our own game and the way we like to play. We have a lot of very good footballers and we’ll need to be able to play that game under pressure, getting pressed all over the field very physically. We have to match that, but make sure that we stick true to our game plan and how to play and how to break them down,” Gale said. “I believe we have the quality to do that and to create attacking opportunities. It’s going to take a big effort.”
Canada is seeking its ninth trip to the Under-20 World Cup, however, they haven’t qualified from the CONCACAF U20s since 2005.
Gale has a roster with depth and versatility at his disposal which should give him and his staff some difficult team selections.
One of the strengths of the side should be on the flanks. Left back Zachary Brault-Guillard captains the Olympique Lyonnais U19s in the UEFA Youth League, a Champions League for academy players. On the other side, Vancouver’s Kadin Chung is a former Canadian under-17 player of the year. Gabriel Boakye from FC Energie Cottbus had a strong under-17 tournament two years ago.
Gale has plenty of options in the midfield. Kris Twardek has been starting for English conference side Braintree Town since going on loan from Millwall.
Similarly lanky striker Dario Zanatta scored for Queen’s Park FC in the Scottish third tier on the weekend as he continues his successful loan spell from Hearts.
Shaan Hundal, 17, was tied for the scoring lead with TFC II last season. He is joined by fellow TFC II regulars Luca Uccello, Liam Fraser and Aidan Daniels in providing attacking options in the middle of the field.
(February 17, 6:30 p.m., ET)
Honduras boasts a number of players who have plenty of first-team experience with their domestic clubs.
Darixon Vuelto is the only foreign-based player after moving to Tenerife in the Spanish second flight on loan. Vuelto has yet to feature for his new club’s first team, but the attacker started 20 matches a season ago for Victoria when they were relegated from the Honduran top flight.
On the right side of the attack is Foslyn Grant from Motagua was a key member of their 2015 FIFA Under-17 World Cup team. On the left side, Douglas Martinez has started nine matches with Vida this season.
Dylan Andrade captained the U17s last cycle from the central defence position. He has made eight appearances with Platense this season. Beside him, Denil Maldonado has made 10 career appearances with Motagua and earned some CONCACAF Champions League experience in 2015.
All told, Honduras has six players from their 2015 U17 World Cup side. Grant, Andrade and Moldonado are joined by goalkeeper Michael Perello from Marathon, central defender Wesly Decas and Jorge Alvarez a box-to-box midfielder from reigning Clasura champions Olimpia.
(February 20, 8:30 p.m., ET)
Canada has beaten Mexico three times in qualifying this century and the sides drew 1-1 at the 2015 CONCACAF under-17 qualifiers, featuring some of the same players. That being said Mexico have won three straight CONCACAF U20 titles and show no reason to believe the current edition will be any different.
This Mexican side are missing five first-rate defenders and yet still appear to be the odds-on favourite to win again.
Unlike Honduras, most of these players lack first team minutes, but they don’t lack in quality. They feature 10 players from their 2015 U17 team that reached the semifinals of the World Cup.
The captain of that team, Jose Joaquin Esquivel, played every minute of that tournament as a central defender.
Edson Alvarez, another central defender, is the best player in the side. He wasn’t expected to be included after making his senior debut against Iceland earlier this year. Alvarez has played 14 times for America and has scored twice. He will likely be joined by teammate Ulises Torres along the back line.
Up front, look for Ronaldo Cisneros and Eduardo Aguirre from Santos Laguna to lead the line.
The list of absent players speaks to the consistent high-quality players the Mexican system is producing.
Cesar Montes has already made a staggering 53 first-team appearances as a central defender with Monterrey and was a member of the Mexican Olympic team. Also not selected for the tournament were Jorge Sanchez at left back and Gerardo Arteaga at right back. The pair have started each of Santos Laguna’s six Clausura matches this season.
A couple of Pachuca defenders are also absent. Érick Aguirre is their starting right back after playing 37 matches for Morelia and Edwin Lara, a 17-year-old left back who was born in California, was also left at home. Lara was a U.S. U17 international before switching and was named one of The Guardian’s 60 Best Young Talents in World Football list for 2016.
Midfielder Roberto Alvarado was the youngest player ever to appear in the Mexican second division when he made his debut at 15 years and 21 days. He played 79 times at that level before transferring to Pachuca.
ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA
(February 23, 6 p.m., ET)
Antigua and Barbuda are returning to the CONCACAF under-20 championships for the first time since 1986, but do so after an impressive qualifying run.
Antigua and Barbuda finished second in Caribbean qualifying, ahead of Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica. They beat Cuba as well, but lost the final 4-0 to Haiti.
Javorn Stevens scored six goals in their eight qualifiers and has eight senior caps. He signed with the Seattle Sounders FC 2 in January.
Mohammad Zayn Hakeem scored twice in the final round of qualifying and made his professional debut this season with English League Two side Mansfield Town.
Antigua also has some youth players with impressive club pedigrees.
DJ Buffonge (Darren Raekwon McIntosh-Buffonge on his birth certificate) is a London-born midfielder who is in his second season with the Manchester United academy. He began his tutelage with Arsenal when he was young before moving over to Fulham and finally United. Buffonge has made four appearances this season with the U23s and has been a regular with the U18s.
Elliott Webber has made three sub appearances for Leicester City’s U19s in the UEFA Youth League. Defender Kalis Gore is also on the books at Leicester.