In November, the Canadian men's soccer program turned heads for the first time in years. It was not the senior team, but an Under 20 squad preparing for World Cup qualifiers with a camp in Europe. Canada played three friendlies against England, Russia and the United States, and while the matches were not televised, it was the results that caught people's attention. By drawing a strong English side 2-2, and then defeating both Russia and the United States, the youth team gave Canadian soccer a rare moment in the mainstream media.
Canada has not qualified for the U20 World Cup since 2007, or technically since 2005 since they automatically qualified as hosts for the 2007 edition. This comes as a slight surprise considering the success the country has had as of late at the U17 level. However, Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada U20 goalkeeper Marco Carducci believes that drought will be broken in January. He has confidence that the level of competition and involvement that young Canadians are earning and receiving at a club level will carry the program forward.
"That's really improved and it continues to improve for Canadian soccer players whether that is here in North America with MLS clubs or whether it is overseas," explains Carducci. "I think we have a lot of experience among the players and that will really help us going forward."
Carducci points to those recent friendlies in Europe as an example of this in action. Many players on the squad had first team experience throughout the world and it paid off. Carducci had played matches with the senior Vancouver Whitecaps in 2014, as did Sam Adekugbe and Kianz Froese. Luca Gasparotto is getting first team minutes with Airdrieonians in Scotland. Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare has broken through with the senior national team, and Montreal Impact. Hanson Boakai and Sadi Jalali play regularly for FC Edmonton. Should Fraser Aird join the team, he has been starting for Glasgow Rangers. Michael Petrasso, announced today as Canada's U20 player of the year, has impressed at Notts County all year.
"Even [before the European friendlies] we knew the quality we had and what we're capable of doing," said Carducci. "Getting those results gave a lot of confidence going forward."
Part of moving forward is the current camp that Canada is currently wrapping up in Sunrise, Florida. It is their last of 2014. This camp did not include games like the European one, but was instead focused on the players themselves. Canada has a little less than a month to announce and decide which players will be on the team for the qualifiers in January.
"With the qualifiers being at a difficult time just after the holiday season, it is important for the team to make sure we get in as much training and just as much preparation as possible leading up to the tournament," says Carducci, the tournament starts January 9. "I think just making sure everyone is fit and healthy, as a team just touching up the last little aspects in terms of how we play."
Another difficulty for Canada will be the new tournament format. The 12 teams who have qualified are playing in two groups, playing five matches each. The top team in each group will automatically advance to the tournament final and therefore qualify for the World Cup. The second and third place teams in each group will play each other in two playoffs, with the winners receiving the other two world cup berths. As Carducci says, playing so many games in a short period of time will be tough but it gives Canada a solid chance of qualifying for the tournament.
Opportunity is something that is presenting itself in a big way for Carducci this year, with both club and country. The Vancouver Whitecaps recently announced that they will be launching a USL Pro affiliate next year, which will give him a chance to play in a professional environment.
"It's obviously a huge step forward for players in my shoes," said Carducci of the Whitecap's move. "Younger guys like me who with the new team will have a lot of match opportunities in a strong environment. Being able to train with the first team full time and then play week in week out at the USL Pro level will be huge for our development and we're looking forward to it next year."
He will also be in the conversation for a position on the Canadian U23 side that will be involved in both the Pan/Am Games and qualification for the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. It is likely he will be competing with Quillan Roberts of Toronto FC for the starting spot.
"That would be something I'd really like to be involved in," he says of a spot on the team. "Looking forward of course, I'm just focused on what's coming in January with the qualifiers and then we will take it as it goes after that. Definitely would be excited to be a part of those groups as well."
The 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Championship is set to be played in Jamaica. Canada will be in Group A, and play their first game January 10 against Haiti, before playing Mexico on January 12, El Salvador on January 15, Cuba on January 19, and Honduras on January 22. The U20 World Cup they are attempting to qualify for will start May 30, 2015 in New Zealand.