Canada's U17 team went down to Panama with a single goal in mind and that was to earn a place in the World Cup that is set to take place this fall in Dubai. They achieved that goal with their impressive 4-2 win over Jamaica that included a pair of comebacks. Head coach Sean Fleming got star performances from Hanson Boakai, Jordan Hamilton, and Andrew Gordon when he needed them and it was enough to ensure Canada a place in the World Cup and in the semifinals.
With the players only allowed to celebrate their World Cup qualification for a short time the squad is now back to focusing on the task at hand. They have achieved their goal but that does not mean they will be taking their semifinal against Panama lightly.
Canada finished the event as runners up in 2011 but this time around Fleming is looking to do one better and claim the top spot. To do that they will need to find a way to get past the host country who also used a 4-2 win to book their place in the World Cup. Panama came through Group A in top spot before knocking off Trinidad and Tobago in the Quarterfinals and they would certainly love to keep winning in front of their home support.
The good news for Canada is that they leave the tough conditions and turf of Estadio Agustín Sánchez behind and will play their remaining games at Estadio Rommel Fernández in Panama City. The move means Canada will be playing on a better surface and in a better venue but will also mean a larger crowd of Panamanian fans. Panama has been drawing a few thousand supporters (compared to a few hundred at best for Canada) to their matches so far but that number could see a substantial increase with the game move to Panama City.
Canada will certainly be up against it with their opposition being a team that is certain to bring out every tactic possible to claim the win. Canada is prepared for that though as they head into the match expecting Panama to employ every type of gamesmanship possible. That includes the fact that Canada, having played all their games on turf, have been allocated a turf field to train on and will forced to adjust to playing on grass quickly as they won't have access to train on grass until their pregame warmups.
It is nothing new for Fleming though as he took a Canadian squad down to Panama in 2012 in preparation for this event and they ran into every trick in the book during that trip. They had to deal with the air conditioning bring broken in the Canadian changing room, training times being moved around with little notice, and other inconveniences that were intended to throw the Canadians off their game.
Such gamesmanship is almost expected from Panama at this stage regardless of what age level the match is being played it. This is the same federation that encouraged their supporters to take part in parties in the street outside of Canada's hotel when the Men's National team visited last fall. At this point, the Canadian staff are unlikely to be surprised by anything that gets thrown their way.
Facing these little hardships could prove valuable for the young Canadians in the long run though as some of them will hopefully progress up the Canadian ranks. Panama is certainly not the only country in CONCACAF that does little things to make life tough for opposition players so if these players hope to represent Canada down the road it is good that they learn to deal with the realities of competing in CONCACAF at a young age.
Behind all the potential distractions that Canada will face waits a fairly strong Panama team that will no doubt be motivated to book a place in the finals in front of their home fans. Panama's U17 squad is together year round and as a result form a very cohesive unit and are well coached. That time training together as a national team has also allowed the squad to develop their technical skills making them a very capable opponent.
Panama has shown that they are capable of playing some very exciting attacking football when they get clicking like they did in the second half against T&T. They have scored 7 goals and conceded just 3 in their 3 games thus far which gives them an identical record to Canada's. A 1-1 draw against Jamaica and a 2-0 win over Barbados was enough to make it out of the group stage in top spot, just like it was for Canada.
The team's are also similar on the field as Canada's U17 squad is one of the more technically gifted teams Canada has seen in recent memory. Canada has the players in their attack to cause a lot of problems for their opposition and they have the creativity to constantly be asking questions of defenders. Canada showed how dangerous they can be when they are clicking in that second half against Jamaica and they will want to carry over that sort of form against Panama as it is likely that they will again need star performances from Boakai, Gordon, Hamilton, and Bustos is they want to get the job done.
Canada has two games left to make their mark on this event but they will be hoping that on Wednesday night they can follow up claiming their second straight World Cup berth by claiming their second straight appearance in the final at this event. With the United States being knocked out by Honduras the other semifinal is Honduras against Mexico with both matches taking place on Wednesday evening.
Canada was scheduled for the early kickoff of the evening on Wednesday but Panama again got their time switched to the later match with their game now starting at 9:00 Eastern. The game will not be streamed but will instead be available on Sportsnet World making it the first game from the event to be televised by Sportsnet. Regardless of the result Canada will wrap up the event on Friday evening in either the final or the third place match.