Doing well at the CONCACAF U20 Championships is not something totally foreign to Canada. They won the event in 1986 and 1996 back when the event was called the CONCACAF Youth Tournament. They would win their group during three successive tournaments (2001, 2003, and 2005) after a format change saw the elimination of the championship round and a shift to competing in two separate groups from which the top two teams in each group advanced to the World Cup. In 2009 the event went back to its traditional format and once again features a championship round.
It is an event that Canada has done fairly well over its history as their two championships actually has them tied for second place all time along with Honduras and Costa Rica but they are all trailing well behind Mexico who added their 11th title in 2011. The fact that the United States has never claimed the top prize during the Championship eras and only won their group three times gives an even better sense of how Canada has performed in the event.
Canada's success in this tournament has allowed them to head to the U20 World Cup on a number of occasions but the program has been in a bit of a dry spell the past few cycles. In 2011 Canada suffered a 3-0 defeat against Costa Rica in group play which led to a semi-final date with Mexico from which the winner would advance to the World Cup. It was another 3-0 defeat and Canada missed out on the World Cup. The story in 2009 was even worse as Canada was knocked out at the group stage along with Mexico from a very unpredictable group. Canada's loses to Trinidad and Tobago and Costa Rica were enough to spoil Randy Edwini-Bonsu's two goal effort in a win over Mexico.
In 2007 Canada did not have to worry about qualifying for the World Cup as they got the invite as the host which capped off a run of 4 straight U20 World Cups for Canada. 2007 would be a disappointment for Canada as they failed to score a single goal or earn a single point on home soil. In 2005 Canada managed to claim a single point thanks to a draw with Syria but it was not enough as they finished bottom of their group.
Things were better in 2003 when Canada was able to knock off the Czech Republic in the final match of their group stage to move on to the knockout round. The win came thanks to a goal from Iain Hume in the closing stages of the match and propelled Canada to the next round off of goal difference. They followed that result up with another big one as Canada knocked off Burkina Faso thanks to a second half effort from Josh Simpson. There run would come to an end at the quarter-final stage at the hands of a Spanish side that featured Andres Iniesta. Goals from Hume and Iniesta left the teams level after regular time but Spain would win the match on a golden goal from Ángel Arizmendi early in extra-time.
The 2001 tournament was another disappointing one for Canada as they would fail to collect a single point in Argentina. They failed to get on the score sheet against Iraq, Brazil, and Germany conceding 9 times and going home with little to show for their efforts.
Canada also made the event in 1997 sending a team to Malaysia where they managed to find some success. A scoreless draw and a 2-1 win over Hungary were enough to see Canada claim third in their group despite losing to Argentina thanks to a strike from Juan Roman Riquelme. Canada moved on as the second best third place team setting up a date with Spain in the round of 16. Spain would win the game 2-0 and bring Canada's solid performance to an end.
So what was so important about Canada qualifying for the top youth event in the World with such regularity? Well, look over Canada's roster for those events since 1997 and you will find a lot of names that went on to be regular members of the National team for a long time to come. That team in 1997 was led by Paul Stalteri and Dwayne De Rosario but it also featured the likes of Jason Bent, Richard Hastings, and Marco Reda.
Same story in 2001 when the roster had a large collection of future national team players in Terry Dunfield, Julian De Guzman, Mike Klukowski, Tam Nsaliwa, Julian De Guzman, Chris Pozniak, Atiba Hutchinson, Rob Friend, and Iain Hume.
The crop from the 2003 team was not quite as large but it did still include a return for Iain Hume and Atiba Hutchinson, Josh Simpson, Nik Ledgerwood, and David Edgar.
In 2005 the team saw returns to the event for Ledgerwood and Edgar who were joined in the Netherlands by Andre Hainault, Jaime Peters, Will Johnson, Marcel De Jong, Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault, and Asmir Begovic.
2007 featured more names that have since gone on to be well known around Canadian soccer. The team was led by a returning Begovic, Edgar, Beaulieu-Bourgault, Peters, and Johnson who were joined this time around by Simeon Jackson, Nana Attakora, Marcus Haber, and Tosaint Ricketts.
Even the squad that missed out on a place in the 1999 World Youth Championship featured some players that would go on to collect a number of caps for the national team. That squad was headlined by Patrice Bernier and Chris Pozniak.
As you can tell from looking at Canada's history in the U20 World Cup (and the World Youth Championship before that) playing in the event has been a big stepping stone for almost all of the players that have been major contributors to the national program in recent years. With Canada missing out on the last two editions of the event that stepping stone has been missing for some of the top prospects. The likes of Kyle Porter, Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Doneil Henry, Matt Stinson, Russell Teibert, and Lucas Cavalinni may yet end up being contributors to the national team down the road but it certainly would not have hurt their development to have taken part in the biggest youth tournament in the World.
It is not only in Canada where many of the countries top players have taken part in this tournament. If you look over the rosters of previous U20 World Cups you will find a basic who's who of soccer around the world. From Lewis Holtby in 2009, to Alexis Sanchez, Jaun Mata, Luis Suarez, and Sergio Aguero in 2007, to Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Lionel Messi, and Radamel Falcao in 2005, to Carlos Tevez, and Andres Iniesta in 2003, and the list goes on and on showing just how many top talents have graced this event.
That is why it is important that Canada makes its return to the U20 World Cup this summer. Our top young players need to test themselves against the best the world has to offer and the only way for that to happen is for them to make it to the World Cup. Nick Dasovic has brought a strong team down to Mexico but the goal has to be a top four finish and a spot in the World Cup.
For the top players on the roster like Doneil Henry, Samuel Piette, Bryce Alderson, Keven Aleman, and Maxime Crépeau a good showing in this CONCACAF tournament will help to cement themselves in the radar for future calls with the national team.
It is not just the players that have already made a bit of a name for themselves that need to make the most of the upcoming event though as the others should be looking at it as a chance to get their name out there and push their careers to the next level. Scouts from all over the world tune in to watch the U20 World Cup so being there provides a massive amount of exposure for young players hoping to secure their club futures.
You really cannot overstate how important this event has been for Canada in the past. A number of players on Canada's current roster took part in the 2007 U17 World Cup in Mexico but now they need to build on that experience and make it at the next level.
Now making it to the U20 World Cup is not always the best indication of which nations are going to find success at the senior level but the teams that have been the most successful at the event also have a strong history of doing well in the World Cup proper. Argentina and Brazil lead the way at the U20 level with Spain, Portugal, and Germany also winning titles in the past and that success has carried over to the senior level.
For Canada it is not about winning the event but about making sure that they are consistently taking part in it. From there we can start talking about making progress and building on the performances each time. For now though just getting back is the key as it will hopefully lead to the next generation of players being better prepared to contribute to the National team.
It was no mistake that throughout the better part of the last two decades Canada's roster was being stocked by players that took part in the U20 World Cup and now that Canada is looking to replace many of those players and rebuild the roster getting back to the stage could play a big role.
Nick Dasovic and his team will not have an easy task over the coming weeks in Mexico but if they can get past Nicaragua and Cuba in group play that will ensure them a quarter-final spot and a chance to go to the World Cup. With three team groups the margin for error will be very small but Canada has had its roster in camp frequently over the last year so they should be ready to hit the ground running.
Forget about the Gold Cup this summer, this CONCACAF U20 Championship is the most important event that Canada will be playing this year. A spot in the U20 World Cup is worth more to these players development than any run at an over-sized trophy is for the senior team.