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Mitch Invasion: Thoughts on Canada qualifying for the U-17 men’s World Cup

Mission accomplished for an important group of young reds

Billy Dzwonkowski/ Canada Soccer

The Canadian Men’s U-17 side booked their ticket to Brazil yesterday morning. In an intense shootout win over Costa Rica, Canada became the first team from Concacaf to qualify for the U-17 World Cup.

After the two teams traded penalties on either side of half-time, a massive save from Canadian keeper Marc Kouadio and a crossbar hit by Jordy Solano delivered Canada the win on penalties.

Considering most of these players will be in their prime by the time Canada hosts in the 2026 World Cup, this was a very important step forward for the program.

Canada has not qualified for a U-17 tournament since they qualified for back-to-back tournaments in 2011 and 2013. Those teams included future national team players like Sam Piette, Maxime Crépeau, Michael Petrasso, Jordan Hamilton and Jay Chapman.

They will now look to become the first Canadian men’s side to win a game at the U-17 World Cup.

Whitecaps Academy prospect Kamron Habibullah against Costa Rica
Billy Dzwonkowski/ Canada Soccer

Jayden Nelson and Kamron Habibullah have led the way for Canada

U-17 tournaments are a tricky time to evaluate talent. At that age physical gifts can sometime outweigh technical talent, and development really is never linear.

Looking at the aforementioned group of players who represented Canada the last two times they qualified for the U-17 World Cup, only Piette starts for the senior team regularly. Everything observed during this tournament should be done through that lense.

With that being said, there are two players at this tournament who have been a cut above for Canada. With a penalty against Costa Rica, Toronto FC prospect Jayden Nelson scored his fifth goal of the competition. His skill on the ball, shot, speed and anticipation are all elite for this age group.

Aside from Nelson, Whitecaps academy standout Kamron Habibullah was one of the other Grade A prospects at the tournament for Canada and has also lived up to the hype. He is the best player on the ball on this Canadian team and has been the key playmaker throughout the competition.

Canada finally came together as a team against Costa Rica

While Nelson, Habibullah, Simon Colyn (Whitecaps senior team), Jacen Russell-Rowe (TFC academy) and a couple of other players had been good individually, Canada looked pretty disjointed throughout the group stage of the tournament.

They relied on those aforementioned players to carry them through some tough moments. But against Costa Rica, despite some tough moments at the start of the second half, Canada generally matched, or bettered, one of the best teams in the region.

It has long been a valid criticism of Canadian men’s national teams at all age groups that they don’t play and train together enough in advance of these crucial tournaments. It probably hampered this group as well, but they seem to have come together in the nick of time.

Canadian defender Gianfranco Facchineri
Billy Dzwonkowski/Canada Soccer

While offensive stars thrive, defending is still an issue

Canada could easily be undefeated at this tournament if only they were better without the ball. After going up 2-0 against the United States in their opening match of the competition, they gave up three goals on some horrendous defending to lose 3-2.

They could probably have seen out yesterday’s result in regular time as well. Like the senior men’s team, almost all of the standout players at this competition have been forwards or midfielders.

As the tournament has gone on, however, Whitecaps academy prospect Gianfranco Facchineri has proven himself to be a solid backline general. He captained Canada to their victory over Costa Rica, including slotting the winning penalty calmly into the bottom left corner. He is the one to watch for Canadian fans hoping the centre back situation improves. Unfortunately for Toronto FC fans, only one of the defenders on the team is a TFC player.

Canada prove plenty of critics wrong

There was a lot of cynicism among Canadian soccer diehards (insert Nick Cage “no you don’t say” meme, or whatever is relevant with the youth now please Benedict [Benedict here - how's this?]) going into this tournament. Two criticisms were voiced the loudest: the coaching and the roster.

For years now, especially with the U-17 side, there has been a lot of hand-wringing over the fact that Canada mostly just calls up players from the three MLS academies. Only Kouadio (Montverde Academy) and Jamie Dunning (Feyenoord Academy) are not from the Caps, Impact or TFC.

There were also a lot of fans who weren’t thrilled with the continued appointment of Andrew Olivieri, especially after his failed U-20 campaign.

However, against Costa Rica, Olivieri was able to keep his team focused and resolute during a difficult match. The Costa Ricans, while very skilled, had also been a ill-disciplined team all tournament. They tried desperately to get Canadian players sent off all match long.

Canada also had two goals disallowed during the match, but were still able to get the result they needed.

Canada now gets bonus rematch with United States

While the Canadian team has qualified for the U-17 World Cup by winning their quarter-final, they now move on to the semi-finals. That means a rematch with the United States, the lone team to beat them at the tournament so far.

Canada played that opening match without Colyn, Nelson or Habibullah in the starting lineup, so it will be interesting to see if Canada’s three top prospects can change the result or not. Qualification was always the main goal, but beating the United States and playing in the tournament final would be an incredible bonus.