It may only be the quarterfinals but Tuesday night's game against the United States is the big one for Canada's under 20 side. Anything after this match is just gravy should Canada manage to advance as winning this game is what matters when it comes to claiming a place in this summer's U20 World Cup in Turkey.
The quarterfinal field is set with three good clashes in Cuba-Costa Rica, Panama-El Salvador, and Mexico-Jamaica along with the highlight of the bunch in Canada-USA. With only four spots in the World Cup it always meant that some decent squads were going to miss out but now we know that at least one of Canada and the United States will not be at the World Cup this summer.
With Canada failing to appear in a U20 World Cup since 2007 they will be looking to get things turned around by picking up a result against the United States. The US on the other hand have never managed to win this event during the years that it has included a championship round but they have been a regular feature in the U20 World Cup despite missing out in 2011.
The United States made it through their group in first place thanks to a pair of wins but continued to show issues that have plagued them in recent years. Their 2-1 win over Haiti was far from an impressive performance as they looked vulnerable for much of the match and if not for a standout performance from Daniel Cuevas they could very well have ended up without a result in that game.
Their showing against Costa Rica was much more impressive as the US were able to hold on to the ball a fair bit more during that game and never really looked all that threatened by their opponents. It was a solid performance from front to back in the win that was capped up by a goal from L.A. Galaxy prospect Jose Villarreal in the second half.
The US were certainly good enough to get out of their group and they did so with relative ease but they did very little to strike fear into the hearts of potential opposition. They still showed flashes of being the team that struggled to get any kind of positive results in 2012 under head coach Tab Ramos and it almost cost them in the first game.
Against Haiti the glaring issue for the United States was the play of their outside defenders. It seemed like Ramos had players out of their natural positions all over the defense with center backs playing on the outside and holding midfielders playing as CBS. It showed in a real lack of cohesion in the back line as the US allowed far too many chances in that first game. They tightened things up in the second game but that was against a Costa Rica team that did not seem all that concern with chasing the win.
So like Canada the United States had one game to be worried about and one game to build off of heading into the quarterfinals. That will be the big question mark for this game from both sides. If the Canada that looked in control against Nicaragua shows up and meets the version of the US that player Haiti then it could end up being a stroll but if both teams do manage to bring their A game this could end up being just another classic battle between Canada and the United States.
Despite coming in as runners up in their group Canada may actually be the favorite for this game. They certainly looked to be the strong side coming into the tournament thanks to a much more impressive record in 2012 but that is all out the window when these two sides meet.
The last time that Canada and the United States met at this level was back in 2012 when they did battle in the opener of the Marbella Cup in Spain. Canada grabbed a 2-1 win in that game thanks to goals from Samuel Piette and Caleb Clarke with the US goal coming from Mario Rodriguez. Both teams had strong teams in that tournament but have made a couple of key changes to the roster for this event. That means we can probably just throw that result out of the window as well despite all three goal scorers being likely to feature on Tuesday night.
It has been a while since Canada and the US met at this level in CONCACAF championship play. For that you have to go all the way back to 2003 when Canada edged out the US for top spot in Group B as both sides qualified for the World Cup. Canada claimed top spot in the group thanks to a 3-2 win over the US that was highlighted by a pair of goal from Iain Hume which was enough to see off the US side led by a strike from Eddie Johnson.
It is a long standing rivalry that encompasses any time Canada and the United States meet in sports regardless of the age group or the playing field. It often results in some very unpredictable results and that unpredictability is magnified at the U20 level where as this tournament has already shown every game can be tough to call.
What we know going into this game is that the United States will be missing at least one key player due to suspension. Mikey Lopez, a Sporting Kansas City draft pick, is out of the game having picked up yellow cards in his countries first two matches. He only started in the second game but he was a key part in the US looking a lot more defensively organized so his loss may prove to be a big one.
Canada on the other hand should have their full compliment of players for this game. Everyone seems to have made it through the group stage without injury or suspension so that leaves only one question mark in regards to the roster. Keven Aleman rode the bench for the full 90 last game and there were plenty of reports making the rounds that it was because he had broken team rules. Nick Dasovic did not offer any explanation for the benching so it remains to be seen if he will bring Aleman back into the lineup for this must win match.
Canada's midfield looked a lot more cohesive in their second game with Samuel Piette and Dylan Carreiro forming a solid partnership in the middle and covering a lot more ground. The fact that Mauro Eustaquio proved willing to track back more than Aleman was also a big plus for Canada.
The real difference though seemed to be the changes that Dasovic made in his attacking choices. Right from the opening whistle Canada was targeting Caleb Clarke who proved to be far more than the Nicaraguan defense could handle on the night. His effort as a late sub against Cuba and then against Nicaragua was far more impressive than anything we saw from Anthony Jackson-Hamel in either game.
The center of the American defense is not the biggest bunch that you will find so that may allow Clarke to again be a difference maker. He showed that he has a good mix of size and speed and know hows to use both of them to create chances when he gets the ball. He also showed that he is willing to make the runs on set pieces as targeting him led to Canada looking far better on corners than they did against Cuba in the first game. Certainly the US defense will give Clarke a tougher time but his holdup play and work on set pieces could be vital to Canada should he get the start again.
Clarke was not the only one who looked good in the attack for Canada as Ben Fisk and Alessandro Riggi both covered a lot of ground down the wings and were able to get in behind the defense on a number of occasions. Michael Petrasso also did a decent job in just over an hour of play against Cuba so Dasovic will have some options should he look to try and attack the US down the wings.
Going down the wings would probably be wise based on the success that Haiti found in that part of the field. If Canada finds that kind of space on the outside they could give the US a lot of problems should they show slightly better crossing and finishing than Haiti did in the first game. There are clearly some defensive holes that Canada could well exploit in this game.
The other side of the ball is where Canada's question marks are probably also the biggest. The defense looked better against Nicaragua but still not quite as good as would have been expected. Should Dasovic go with a back four of John Dollery, Daniel Stanese, Doneil Henry, and Marco Lapenna again they will need to take another step forward and have their best game of the tournament to shut down the US attack.
Maxime Crepeau has looked sharp behind them in goal but unless Canada's outside backs can keep things tight and limit the crosses coming in he could be in for a long day which would be bad news for Canada. The US has found most of its attacking success by coming down the wings so that is something that Canada will have to be aware of and be prepared to have to deal with players cutting in from the wings and with crosses.
Both teams have their questions marks but this is a Canada-USA game so you really never know what you are going to get. Chances are despite the question marks about both team's defensive units we will end up seeing a cagey match as neither team wants to fall behind in a game like this. It could well be another game between the two countries that comes down to which team produces a moment of magic, which keeper makes that one big save, or who makes the best use of their set pieces.
We know that Canadian teams have a history of playing their very best against the United States but that is typically in more of an underdog role. Hopefully, despite coming into this game on fairly even footing, Canada still finds a way to turn in their best performance as it will almost certainly be needed.
With a spot in the U20 World Cup on the line this really is a must win game for Canada. It will be shown on Sportsnet World this time around with Sportsnet electing to put the match on tv and not make a stream available. Hopefully you all manage to find a way to tune in for the game and cheer on Canada. Allez les Rouges!