Canada hasn’t played at the FIFA U-20 World Cup since it hosted the event in 2007.
If the Reds are to end the drought, they’ll first have to navigate their way through the upcoming CONCACAF U-20 Championship.
To that end, Canadian coach Nick Dasovic on Tuesday announced his 23-player roster for a preparatory training camp to be staged in Mexico City from Feb. 11-16. Included on the squad list are Toronto FC defender Doneil Henry, Real Valladolid midfielder Keven Aleman and Vancouver Whitecaps forward Caleb Clarke.
Unlike Canada’s senior team, Dasovic didn’t encounter any problems or shenanigans from pro clubs unwilling to release their Canadian players for international duty.
"For the first time, it’s been run pretty smoothly… As of right now, we have the players that we feel are the ones we want to bring to camp and all the teams and all the clubs have been very co-operative with the situation," Dasovic told reporters during a Tuesday conference call.
Dasovic called this collection of players "a very mature bunch" and a tight-knit group that is "highly motivated with a lot of leadership qualities."
The Canadian coach will use the training camp as his final preparation for the CONCACAF Championship, which runs Feb. 18 to Match 2 in Puebla, Mexico. Dasovic must trim his roster down to 20 players before the start of the tournament.
The four semi-finalists at the CONCACAF Championship will qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup scheduled for June in Turkey.
Two players in this under-20 camp — Henry and Samuel Piette – have played for Canada’s senior team, while three players (Bryce Alderson, Henry and Piette) featured for Canada’s under-23 side at last year’s CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament. Eight players in camp represented Canada at the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico.
"Them knowing that they belong and that they can do this … they have the belief now, and I think that’s an important part whenever you build a team like this," Dasovic explained.
Dasovic feels his team will benefit from the number of players now playing in professional environments both in Canada and overseas, and the improvement in the quality of players emerging from the youth academies of Major League Soccer’s three Canadian clubs.
"The difference now (compared to 10 years ago) is that we’re getting players that come to us when we have camps who are more defined and polished in terms of their readiness to become a professional," Dasovic said.
After Canada failed to qualify for the last two U-20 World Cups in 2009 and 2011, the pressure is squarely on Dasovic’s shoulders this time around.
"It is about winning," Dasovic said. "We need to go in with an idea that we’re not going to go there to make up the numbers. We’re going there to win games."
He later added: "I take a lot of pressure as a coach, absolutely."
Canada will compete in Group B at the CONCACAF Championship alongside Cuba and Nicaragua. The top two teams in the round robin group advance to the quarter-finals of the 12-nation tournament.
Group A features the United States, Costa Rica and Haiti. Group C is made up of Jamaica, Panama and Puerto Rico. Defending CONCACAF champion Mexico, El Salvador and Curacao will compete in Group D.
Canada faces Cuba on Feb. 18, before taking on Nicaragua four days later.
"I watched Nicaragua play in a tournament in Honduras where they beat Honduras. They are no slouches. They are legitimate," Dasovic said.
The bigger picture
Of course, Dasovic isn’t just focused on the CONCACAF Championship and the FIFA World Cup. As coach of the under-20 side, he has a valuable and important role to play in the bigger issue of Canadian player development.
In the wake of Canada’s embarrassing 8-1 loss to Honduras last October, the senior program is undergoing a long-term rebuild and overhaul. A crop of young players were selected for recent friendlies against Denmark and the United States, all with an eye towards retooling the team by the time the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers begin.
This CONCACAF tournament has a role to play in that, as it will allow Dasovic’s players to gain valuable experience and better prepare them to make the jump to the senior side.
"This is basically going to give the players a platform to get international experience. …. Every time we get an extra game at international level, that’s automatically a learning process for those players involved," Dasovic said.
"We’re looking at getting these kids as many games as we can get them so when they get to the Olympic level and the senor level, they’ll already have 10, 20 or 30 games under their belt."
Goalkeepers: Ricky Gomes (Sport Clube de Mirandela/Portugal), Maxime Crepeau (Montreal Impact Academy)
Defenders: Jon Dollery (Crawley Town FC/England), Marco Lapenna (FC Erzgebirge Aue/Germany), Doneil Henry (Toronto FC/MLS), Daniel Stanese (FC Nurnberg Reserve/Germany), Manjrekar James (PMFC-MATIAS/Hungary), Jordan Murrell (Syracuse University), Allan Zebie (Edmonton FC Reserve)
Midfielders: Samuel Piette (Fortuna Dusseldorf/Germany), Ben Fisk (Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23), Bryce Alderson (Vancouver Whitecaps/MLS), Keven Aleman (Real Valladolid/Spain), Michael Petrasso (Queens Park Rangers/England), Dylan Carreiro (Queens Park Rangers/England), Alessandro Riggi (Celta de Vigo/Spain), Mauro Eustaquio (Sporting Clube de Pombal/Portugal), Zakaria Messoudi (Montreal Impact Academy), Ben McKendry (University of New Mexico)
Forwards: Caleb Clarke (Vancouver Whitecaps/MLS), Yassin Essa (Vancouver Whitecaps FC Residency), Anthony Jackson-Hamel (Montreal Impact Academy), Stefan Vukovic (unattached)