This is the big one for Canada's U17 team. When they take the field on Saturday against Jamaica they will know that all their work over the past year and a half was so that they could be ready for this match when it finally came. The team's goal heading into the CONCACAF U17 Championships in Panama was to earn a place in this fall's World Cup and so far they are on track to do just that. Now, they face the final hurdle in that dream but as the U20 team learned last month it is also the hardest hurdle to get past.
All four quarterfinals are now set but with only four World Cup places up for grabs four teams will be going home happy while four teams will suffer heartbreak. For the Canadians the good news is that they won their group following a 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago and a hard fought 1-1 draw against Costa Rica. By winning the group they put themselves in position to get a more favorable match-up in the quarterfinals. The big plus for Canada is that they avoided the host nation as Panama ended up claiming top spot in Group A.
Jamaica comes out of Group A with just two points to show for their efforts having been forced to settle for draws in both of their games. The Jamaicans got through to the knockout round by the skin of their teeth as a Barbados upset could have been enough to send them home early. Jamaica opened their event with a 1-1 draw against Panama which put them in position to book their ticket into the next round just by claiming all three points against Barbados in the second match. They got off to a strong start in their second game taking the lead inside of 10 minutes and heading to the break up 2-1 but Barbados put up a good fight in the second half and were good value for the 2-2 draw.
Jamaica's play in the first two games did not exactly turn any heads or strike fear into potential quarterfinal opponents but they put in a similar performance back in 2011 and still ended up knocking off Honduras to claim a World Cup spot before finishing the event in fourth place.
Jamaica were impressive in qualifying for the event though rolling through Group 1 of Caribbean qualifying. They advanced with a 5-0 win over Bermuda and a 4-0 victory over Antigua and Barbuda. They did have the advantage of not only competing in the smallest group (Group 5 also had 3 teams due to Granada withdrawing) but also hosting the group in Kingston which is the perk of being the highest seeded team.
If Jamaica has a danger-man on their roster it would be Junior Flemings. He scored their only goal in the opener against Panama and added to his tally in the second game as he converted a first half penalty against Barbados. He was also responsible for three of his countries nine goals in qualifying for the event. Keeping him quiet in the attack will go a long ways towards giving Canada a serious chance of coming away with the win.
For Canada the key is going to be getting their offense rolling and being more efficient with the chances that they have. Canada saw too many quality chances go begging against Trinidad and Tobago and Costa Rica but they got away with it because they had plenty of chances to spare. They are unlikely to get that many good chances against this Jamaican team in such an important match so making the ones that they have count will be key. Canada will also want to do a better job of staying onside than they did against Costa Rica to avoid having any goals ruled out and making things harder on themselves.
That puts pressure on the likes of Jordan Hamilton and Hanson Boakai to add to their goal a piece from the first two matches. They have both had the chance to add a few more to their tally and with Hamilton only playing just over an hour against Costa Rica they should both be ready to go for this match and hopefully ready to make a difference. Canada could also benefit from the return to Andrew Gordon to the starting lineup as the midfielder had a good scoring record in friendlies prior to this event but has been kept quiet for the most part through two games and was dropped to the bench for the second match.
Head coach Sean Fleming will be forced to make at least one change to the lineup that he started with against Costa Rica as Marco Dominguez will not be available to him having picked up a yellow in both of Canada's games which earned him a one match suspension.
For the Jamaicans it should be the full compliment of players available for selection as they managed to clean up their act for the second game after picking up five yellows and a pair of red cards against Panama. They didn't pick up a single caution against Barbados so despite having so many players on the edge of suspension they will have the full squad intact including the two red carded players returning from their one game suspensions.
Canada knows that they still have a lot of work to do before making it to the World Cup but hopefully Sean Fleming will be able to draw on his previous experience in this event. He was in change of the Canadian team in 2011, a team that also included Jordan Hamilton, and led them to a place in that year's World Cup as well as making the final of the Concacaf championship.
In 2011 Canada went up against Trinidad and Tobago in the all important quarterfinals and came away with a 2-0 win thanks to goals from Chris Nanco and Keven Aleman. Canada came into the match in a similar position having taken four points from the group stage thanks to an 8-0 win over Barbados and a 0-0 draw with Honduras but then they put it all together in the knockout rounds beating T&T 2-0 and Panama 1-0 before falling to the United States 2-0 in the final.
A repeat of that 2011 performance would be great for Canada but making the final was just a bonus after achieving their goal of World Cup qualification. In 2011 it was Canada, United States of America, Jamaica, and Panama reaching the World Cup from CONCACAF but with Canada and Jamaica meeting on Saturday we know there will be at least one change to the group in 2013.
In the other quarterfinals Panama will take on Trinidad and Tobago, the United States take on Honduras, and the field is rounded out by Mexico taking on Guatemala. There have not been any major surprises thus far in the event with Costa Rica being arguably the strongest side eliminated so hopefully the quarterfinals have a bit of drama in store, just as long as it is not in Canada's game.
Canada will have an extra element to deal with in this game as the forecast is not looking kind for Saturday's game. With the kickoff being moved up from the intially planned 8:00 to 6:00pm Eastern,Canada will have to deal with temperatures that will likely still be in the 30's (C) and with Estadio Agustín Sánchez being turf it will only magnify that heat for the players. It will be tough conditions that will be much more familiar to the Jamaicans than the Canadians who haven't had to deal with that heat that many times in most of their young careers.
It will all just be one more hurdle for Canada to clear but if they can the reward is that priceless World Cup ticket which as 2011 proved can open doors for young Canadians at clubs they would never have crossed paths with otherwise.