The Canadian Under-17 squad are finally ready to get underway at the World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. It has been a long time coming but on Saturday they get the competition underway with a game against Austria. With only three games in the group stage it will be important for Canada to come out strong in this first match.
Canada qualified for the event as the third best team from CONCACAF and since that event in the spring they have been playing a number of friendlies to remain sharp. Their final two preparation matches for the event took place last week as Canada picked up a 1-1 draw against UEFA Champions Russia before losing 4-1 to Morocco. Andrew Gordon scored the goals for Canada in both matches as he enters the tournament full of confidence.
Now Canada are on to the games that matter and the friendlies are behind them. Their opponent for the first match, Austria, did not have the most convincing of qualifying processes. Coming out of UEFA, Austria qualified as the third place team in their group behind Slovakia and Sweden. Their place in the event came down to the final match of the group stage as they needed a win over Switzerland to ensure their third place finish. They got the job done with a 2-1 win in that final match and their 4 points in the group were enough to move on to the World Cup.
For teams coming out of UEFA the qualification process is a lot more strenuous then it is in CONCACAF. Austria had to advance through three rounds of qualification before booking a place in the World Cup. In the opening round of qualification they joined Switzerland in the top two of the group which was enough to advance to the second round where they topped a group that included Georgia, Republic of Ireland, and Serbia. Their place in the final round again came down to the final match when their 2-1 win over Georgia combined with the other teams drawing was enough for them to claim the only place in the final qualification round.
The UEFA qualification process began with 53 teams before being narrowed down to the 6 countries that will represent the region in the World Cup. Austria may not have been the most convincing country in the qualification process but having to fight for their place in three rounds of qualification will ensure that they are ready for high pressure games and have plenty of experience under their belts.
Austria will be making their second ever appearance in the World Cup with their only previous appearance coming back in 1997. They do not boast the most threatening attack as during qualification they only scored 13 goals in 9 games and 6 of those goals came in their opening round win over Faroe Islands. Their strength was on the other side of the ball as they only allowed 6 goals across their 9 qualification matches.
The top scoring threats that Austria had in qualification were Adrian Grbic, Nikola Zivotic, and Tobias Pellegrini who all found the back of the net three times in the nine matches. Their most important player might just be their starting goalie though as Alexander Schlager was a crucial part of their qualification having to make a number of important saves along the way.
This is a game that Canada should be looking at with the hopes of getting a result. With Argentina likely to prove to be the top team in the group Canada, Austria, and Iran will be competing for second place and getting a result in this game would really boost Canada's chances of advancing to the knockout stages.
Canada has never picked up a win in this event so if they are going to move beyond the group stage in 2013 they will have to end that streak at some point. If they can do that, and they will have a chance to do so in the opener, it might be enough for them to advance from the group. With four of the six third place teams also moving on even a team with just 3 points has a good chance of advancing.
It will be interesting to see how Canada lines up for the opening game. They tried a number of different lineups during the CONCACAF Championships which showed the options that Fleming has to work with particularly on the attacking side of things. The question now is how to get the most out of the options they have in the attack without giving up to much on the defensive side of things.
With Austria likely to bring a more defensive approach to the match Canada will need that little bit of extra creativity in the midfield to unlock things for the forwards. That will mean Hanson Boakai having to step up with a big game which is nothing new for the smallest player on the roster who routinely impresses with his ability to find space and create for his teammates. If Canada are going to win this game he will likely have a big part to play in that.
With the games all being made available on Sportsnet World Canadian fans will be able to watch the games and hopefully find some reasons for optimism about the future of Canadian Soccer. There is a long way between the U17 team and the national team but as 2011 showed for some players the jump can happen quite quickly as a number of players from that roster are now in the senior team or playing professionally. Hopefully, the same will happen for some players who impress over the next few weeks of action in the UAE.