Today is the day, the CONCACAF under 20 Championships kick off in Puebla, Mexico! For Canada that means a date with Cuba on Monday night at 9 (eastern time) which will be available to fans in Canada via a stream on Sportsnet.ca. With the U20 tournament featuring three team groups it means that there is very little margin for error as any stumble will make your road to the World Cup that much harder.
With only four spots available to CONCACAF teams this summer in Turkey the magic target is to finish top two in group play and then win your quarterfinal as all four of the semifinalists will punch their tickets. For Canada that means ensuring they do better than either Cuba or Nicaragua in Group B which would set up a quarterfinal against one of the teams from Group A which is made up of the United States, Costa Rica, and Haiti.
The condensed format of the tournament means that three wins is enough to go to the World Cup but anything less than that will make it tougher. Canada should be well prepared for the challenge though as head coach Nick Dasovic has done his best to get the team together as often as possible over the past year. Over the past 14 months he has managed to get U20 players together for 53 days of camp including a five day pre-tournament camp down in Mexico. The work to get ready has certainly been done so there should be no excuses when Canada takes to the field.
Canada is missing out on a couple of players who Dasovic would probably have liked to have in his squad due to injuries. The biggest name on the list is Bryce Alderson who was included in the roster for the Mexico training camp but did not join the team due to injury and was then left off the final 20 man roster. For the most part though Dasovic has managed to put together the strongest team possible and having had the chance to look at a large number of players over the past 14 months it is hopefully a group that he is confident will be able to get the job done.
Despite being a group of teenagers the 20 man squad boasts some impressive resumes. It would certainly have been painful for Jordan Murrell and Yassin Essa to be the last ones cut before the 20 man roster was finalize but the group that remains is an impressive bunch. You have Doneil Henry and Samuel Piette who already have caps for the senior national team and were part of the U23 team that attempted to qualify for the Olympics last spring. There is also a large group of players who have experience from the U17 World Cup which took place in Mexico back in 2007. That group includes Keven Aleman, Maxime Crépeau, Marco Lapenna, Michael Petrasso, Samuel Piette, and Daniel Stanese who highlight Canada's 1994 class.
There is plenty of experience to be drawn on in this squad not just from the international stage but also from the club level. Most of this roster is training regularly at quality clubs with a number of players having already made their professional debuts. The one exception to that is Stefan Vukovic who is still looking to find a club home but has been training in Europe after failing to catch on at both Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact.
So we know that Canada has a good group down in Mexico but what will the be up against in Cuba? Well, they have already gone through a lengthy qualification process just to reach this stage so they should really be well prepared for the event. In the first round of Caribbean qualifying Cuba won their group ahead of the Dominican Republic, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Aruba thanks to a pair of convincing wins followed by a draw against DR. Winning their group meant moving on to the second, and final, round of qualifying. This time they were put into a group with Jamaica, Suriname, and Antigua and Barbuda. Two wins and a draw were again enough to see them advance this time finishing second in the group behind Jamaica on goal difference.
Just making it to this stage kept the Cuban U20 team busy during the summer and fall of 2012 so while Canada was often involved in training camps and exhibition play Cuba was able to get in some competitive games and produced a very good record along with way.
Cuba netted 14 goals while only conceding 2 in their 6 qualifying games which is an impressive accomplishment regardless of the level of opposition that they were facing. Arichel Hernández led the way for Cuba in scoring and he is one of the few players that Canada should be quite familiar with as he played the full 90 when Canada drew Cuba 1-1 in Olympic Qualifying. He actually started all three games in that tournament for Cuba despite being one of the younger players on their roster. If there is anyone that Canada should be paying special attention to tonight it would probably be him.
Hernandez was not the only player on the Cubans U20 roster that took to the field against Canada in Nashville. Maykel Reyes came on as a second half sub for Cuba and Arturo Diz Pe played the entire game at CB. With the game being a year ago neither sticks out in my memory but it goes to show that there is some experience in this Cuban squad as well.
The issue with taking on a team like Cuba at this level is that they represent a relative unknown to Canada even if the coaching staff has done their homework. They may have been able to track down footage of some of their matches in qualifying but getting more detailed information on the individual players remains tricky due to the nature of Cuba's relationship with much of the international community. The Cuban team is also made up of a group of players who have less club commitments to worry about than the Canadian squad and will have spent extensive time training together in Cuba to prepare for this event.
Cuba has been improving in recent years and Canadian fans have seen enough of them at different levels to know that it would be foolish to look past them. They always prove to be a tricky opponent that does the hard work to try and grind out a result. The climate in Puebla will also be more familiar to Cuba than it is for many of the Canadian players but having spent the past week in Mexico that should not be an excuse for the Canadian squad.
Even in Cuba they have soccer blogs and thanks to Richard Scott we were able to track down one that put together a "Mission Puebla" video about their U20 team. It is in Spanish but does include some highlights:
Canada has done their homework on Cuba, they have called together a strong squad, and they have spent plenty of time getting ready. Now they just have to go out and do the hard part which is to get a the result that they need to start qualifying off on the right foot. It should be a good battle but if Canada plays up to their potential they really should have too much for Cuba to handle but when it comes to Canadian soccer we all know better than to count on sure things.
In case you missed it the full 20 man roster available for selection tonight:
GK- Maxime Crépeau | CAN / Académie Impact Montréal
GK- Ricky Gomes | POR / Sport Clube de Mirandela
CB- Doneil Henry | CAN / Toronto FC
CB- Manjrekar James | HUN / PMFC-MATIAS
CB- Daniel Stanese | GER / FC Nürnberg Reserve
FB- Jon Dollery | ENG / Crawley Town FC
FB- Marco Lapenna | GER / FC Erzgebirge Aue
FB- Allan Zebie | CAN / FC Edmonton Reserve
M- Keven Aleman | ESP / Real Valladolid
M- Dylan Carreiro | ENG / Queens Park Rangers
M- Mauro Eustáquio | POR / Sporting Clube de Pombal
F- Ben Fisk | CAN / Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23
M- Ben McKendry | USA / University of New Mexico
M- Zakaria Messoudi | CAN / Académie Impact Montréal
F- Michael Petrasso | ENG / Queens Park Rangers
M- Samuel Piette | GER / Fortuna Düsseldorf
M- Alessandro Riggi | ESP / Celta de Vigo
F- Caleb Clarke | CAN / Vancouver Whitecaps FC
F- Anthony Jackson-Hamel | CAN / Académie Impact Montréal
F- Stefan Vukovic | Unattached / sans club