There aren't always many sources of optimism when it comes to Canadian soccer. Recently, however, the U17 men's team has shown nothing but progress in Canadian player development. The team has made the last two World Cups, in 2011 and 2013, and were competitive in both. While their success has to translate to the older age groups, it is a good sign that the program is on its way up.
Starting tomorrow, Canada will have a chance to do something that it has never done before: qualify for three straight U17 World Cups. The only other time Canada qualified for two straight World Cups was in 1993 and 1995. Those teams featured such notable Canadian players as Jason Bent, Jimmy Brennan, Paul Stalteri and Patrice Bernier.
Every one of those teams has had some element that has made them successful. For Canada to get out of a group with Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama they will need their own recipe for success. For midfielder Harry Paton, it is a mix of ingredients that could fuel this team to victory.
"The technical side of the individuals on our team is pretty high and we have a lot of athletes as well," explained Paton. "The pace from our wingers and endurance from our midfielders and strength for our centrebacks is really good."
The goal for Canada now is to make sure all of those ingredients complement one another. That is what the team has focused on when they have met in recent camps under coach Sean Fleming. Tactically, this has been done by isolating the different groups of players into their respective roles.
"The defenders and midfielders work together on building from the back and then the attackers work on combinations in the final third," said Paton. "We bring that together in an 11 v. 11 game."
One of those camps was held in Guatemala, and Paton points to this camp as crucial for the team's preparation to the tournament. CONCACAF can have a lot of external factors at the best of times, and is very different from the playing conditions under which Paton and his teammates usually play.
"It was getting us prepared for this tournament here in Honduras," he says. "The temperature, the atmosphere, the scenery and the pitches as well are pretty similar to Guatamala. So I think Sean [Fleming] was just trying to get us adjusted to how Honduras is."
Preparation is just one of the things that has made Fleming one of the most successful Canadian national team coaches of all time, and the architect of Canada's last two U17 World Cup appearances. According to Paton, he is also the type of coach that is able to get the best out of his players. He demonstrates this both in games and practices.
At the stage Paton is at in his career, he is still learning what he can be at his best. Part of this process was going over to England, where he currently plays for Fulham's U18 academy team. This was a decision he made to challenge himself, and test his limits as a player.
"My dad was born in England so I have a British citizenship," he says. "So I wanted to go over and see Europe and see if I had a chance."
Paton was given opportunities to trial for Fulham, Brentford and Queen's Park Rangers, all of which offered him a two year scholarship. However, the Kitchener, ON native felt that Fulham was the best opportunity for him at the time and has been playing there ever since.
Canada kicks off the tournament tomorrow against Haiti. It will play three more group stage matches against Costa Rica on March 3, Mexico on March 6, Saint Lucia on March 9 and Panama on March 12. The top team in the group will advance to the final and earn a spot in the World Cup. The second and third place teams from the group will be ranked for two playoff games in which the winners also qualify.