TORONTO — Rob Gale’s search for young soccer talent knows no borders, as evidenced by the Canadian under-20 coach’s squad for the CONCACAF Men’s Under-20 Championship later this month.
The English coach estimates he has worked with 80-plus players over the last three years in refining his player pool. Given the injuries and other issues Gale has had to deal with recently, that depth has come in handy.
Canada’s 20-man roster features nine players based in Chile, England, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and Scotland. Eight others are working their way through the system with Canadian MLS clubs while the remaining three are in the NCAA ranks.
It’s a young Canadian roster with five players born in 1999 (who will be eligible for the 2019 tournament), seven in 1998 and eight in ’97.
Canada opens Feb. 17 against Honduras before playing Mexico on Feb. 20 and Antigua & Barbuda on Feb. 23 at the 12-country CONCACAF event, which runs through March 6 in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Four teams will qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, which runs May 20 to June 11 in South Korea.
The challenge facing Gale’s squad to get to Korea is immense. Canada failed to qualify for the last four U-20 world championships and has not taken part since it served as host in 2007 when it failed to win a game or score a goal.
Injuries have not helped Gale’s cause. Midfielders David Choiniere and Shamit Shome (Montreal Impact) and goalkeepers Philip Di Bennardo (Toronto FC 2) and James Pantemis (Montreal Impact) are among those unavailable.
Defenders Marcus Godinho (Heart of Midlothian, Scotland) is recovering from a knee injury and only makes the three-man standby squad along with defender Matthew Constant (University of New Mexico) and midfielder Dayonn Harris (Penn State).
Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla, Montreal’s highly touted 17-year-old midfielder, declined an invitation.
"Which is disappointing," said Gale.
Italy’s Palermo declined to release youth goalkeeper Sebastian Breza because of injuries to other ‘keepers.
Gale has seen one ‘keeper drop after another with Christian Kaiswatum, Marvis Kreitling, Pantemis, Di Bennardo and Breza all unavailable for one reason or another. All five were No. 1 or No. 2 on his depth chart at some point.
"It’s very unusual and very unfortunate," said the coach. "But it gives two others the chance."
Gales enters the tournament with Dayne St. Clair of the University of Maryland and Thomas Hasal of the Vancouver Whitecaps residency program as his options in goal. Both had been with the team in recent camps.
Canadian-born defender Fikayo Tomori, currently on loan to Brighton from Chelsea, has elected to represent already-qualified England although Gale holds out some hope he may switch allegiance at some point in the future.
The CSA has elected to keep 16-year-old midfielder Alphonso Davies, a rising star with the Vancouver Whitecaps, in the under-17 program.
Kadin Chung and Hasal come from the Whitecaps while Toronto FC provides Dante Campbell, Aidan Daniels, Liam Fraser, Shaan Hundal, and Luca Uccello. Montreal furnishes Thomas Meilleur-Giguere.
Gale will look for leadership from Meilleur-Gigeure, Ucello and Kosovar Sadiki with Meilleur-Gigeure the likely captain.
There is no room for Josh Doughty, Harrison Patton or Elliot Simmons, three buzz players in recent times. Patton and Simmons lost out on selection while it was bad timing for Doughty, who is looking for a club having left Manchester United. Gale said all three remain very much on the radar.
Canada’s record at the U-20 level has been very poor, failing to qualify for 12 of the 20 previous tournaments. Its record on the U-20 world stage is 4-18-5 while being outscored 50-16.
Its best showing was in 2003 when Dale Mitchell’s squad featuring Atiba Hutchinson, Iain Hume, David Edgar and Nik Ledgerwood made it to the quarter-finals before losing to eventual runner-up Spain.
With the competition coming in the off-season for many of the Canadians, Gale has back-ended his schedule to kept the players active leading up to the competition.
Still rival teams have had far more time together. Gale says Honduras and Costa Rica gets to work with their players Monday through Friday while Haiti has spent the last six months as a group training in Brazil.
Injuries and other issues aside, Gale says his player pool is stronger and the team’s preparation better than it was two years ago.
"It’s going to be tough as we know but that’s football," he said. "At this level it shouldn’t be easy."
The team assembles Sunday in Costa Rica.
England, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal have already qualified from Europe, with New Zealand and Vanuatu representing Oceania. Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam will join host South Korea from Asia. Uruguay is the first to qualify from South America.
Goalkeepers: Dayne St. Clair, University of Maryland; Thomas Hasal, Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-18 Residency.
Defenders: Zachary Brault-Guillard, Olympique Lyonnais (France); Gabriel Boakye, Energie Cottbus U-19 (Germany); Kosovar Sadiki, Stoke City U-23 (England); Thomas Meilleur-Giguere, Montreal Impact; Kamal Miller, Syracuse University.
Defender-Midfielder: Kadin Chung, Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2.
Midfielders: Liam Fraser, Toronto FC 2; Diego Gutierrez, CD Palestino (Chile); Tristan Borges, SC Heerenveen (Netherlands); Kris Twardek, Millwall FC (England); Dante Campbell, Toronto FC 2; Aidan Daniels, Toronto FC 2; Emmanuel Zambazis, Iraklis 1908 FC (Greece).
Forwards: Luca Uccello, Toronto FC 2; Dario Zanatta, Heart of Midlothian FC (Scotland); Shaan Hundal, Toronto FC 2; Aymar Sigue, Penn State University; Liam Millar, Liverpool FC U-18 (England).