When the Canadian U-18 squad headed to Spain to take on some of the strongest U-19 and U-20 teams in the World it was not hard to imagine that they were just taking part to help make up the numbers in the event and gain some valuable experience by playing in a prestigious international tournament.
Canada were drawn into a group along with Argentina, Japan, Belarus, and Bulgaria which set them up for a tough task if they wanted to even make it past the group stage. They made the task a lot easier though by winning their opening group match against Japan despite going down to 10-men when Quinton Duncan was sent off in the 4th minute of play. The Canadian team got the only goal of the match from Brody Huitema as they managed to hold on to a 1-0 win thanks to an impressive effort in goal by Nolan Wirth.
The second game of the group stage was much tougher for Canada as they went up against a surprisingly physical Argentina squad. Early in the match Argentina saw a straight red when a player stepped on Manuel Aparicio which put Canada in good shape but the young Canadians had a hard time dealing with the physical play and as a result were committing a lot of sloppy fouls and picking up cards. Aparicio would wind up picking up a red card of his own in the second half as Argentina really controlled the game and wound up with a comfortable 2-0 victory.
Next up for Canada was a game against Bulgaria. The first half of the match looked very similar to the one against Argentina as Canadian players were caught spending too much time trying to play the body and forgetting to play the ball. They went into the break trailing 1-0 but the halftime talk and a few strong individual performances really turned things around for the second 35. Canada got a late equalizer from Aparicio who was in the right place to apply a tidy finish following a scramble in the Bulgarian box. The winner came deep in added time thanks to a very nice piece of individual skill by Michael Petrasso who made a driving run into the box before applying the finish that left the keeper with little chance and handed Canada a 2-1 win.
Heading into their final game of the group stage Canada needed to take all three points to ensure their place in the semifinals. They were going up against Belarus who sat last in the group with a single point so the chance to take all three points was certainly there. Canada got the only goal of the game from Callum Ferguson midway through the second half as they defended well in a 1-0 win.
Canada wrapped up the group stage with 3 wins and a defeat which was enough to see them finish level with Argentina on points but second in the group based on goal difference. That set up a semifinal against Spain which was the first match of the tournament where the young Canadians looked truly outclassed by their opposition. They did make a game of it early in the second half though when they were trailing just 1-0 as an effort from Dylan Carriero was inches away from levelling the score as he rounded the keeper but his shot went off the post. After that though the Spanish squad went down the field and made it 2-0 and put the game away. They would add a third late in the game to wrap up a fairly comfortable 3-0 win and a place in the final.
With Argentina winning the other semifinal that meant Canada would play Mexico for third place. The two CONCACAF sides in the event were fairly evenly matched with both countries boasting impressive defensive records throughout the competition. The Canadian coaching staff made a few changes to their lineup for the match but still fielded a strong side that gave Mexico just about everything they could handle.
Mexico took the lead in the first half with a 23rd minute goal but it did not take long for the Canadians to find an answer as they would level the score before the break. The second half resulted in very few chances for either team but Huitema did get a golden chance to win the game in the closing minutes as he found himself open in the box on a counter-attack but his header effort went just wide of the post.
The 70 minutes of play ended 1-1 which sent the match to penalties. Canada converted their first four kicks and thanks to a save from Wirth were in a position to win the game with their fifth kick but a poorly taken effort allowed the Mexican keeper to come up with a save to keep his team alive. Following a goal from the Mexicans was another poor Canadian PK which was enough to hand Mexico a 5-4 triumph after 6 rounds of penalties.
With that result Canada settle for 4th place in the event. It is an impressive result and the good news for the players who did impress was that they did it in the backyard of the new National Team Head Coach, Benito Floro. Floro and his son attended a number of the matches and even spoke at the event which is an added bonus to Canada taking part in this tournament.
For the likes of Carriero and Petrasso who showed a lot of skill on the ball it was a good chance to impress the coach and possibly earn a call-up to the senior team down the road. They were the two best players for Canada but a number of other players will have seen their stock rise with their performances. Now this group will have to continue to improve as they will likely make up the core of the squad when Canada attempts to qualify for the next U-20 World Cup in 2015.
For TFC fans both Aparicio and Dylan Sacramento showed some positive in the event making a number of good runs but they also showed that they have some ways to go in their development. Aparicio was often closed down quite easily and caught in possession and was sloppy with his tackling while Sacramento struggled with his crossing but those are areas that both players can work on in the coming years.
All in all, it was a good event for Canada and another reason to be hopeful that their is some potential talent coming down the pipeline that could help to improve the fortunes of the National Team.