This is normally where I begin an article with the obligatory "it's not every day Canada qualifies for a World Cup." Except, of course, that it increasingly is every day. We're running a string of successful qualifications, from the U-17 women to the senior women to, now, the U-17 men. With a hard-fought and well-earned 2-0 victory yesterday morning against Trinidad and Tobago, our teenage titans of the pitch have qualified for the 2011 U-17 World Cup taking place in Mexico.
It's nothing special when the women qualify for a major tournament, to put it bluntly, but the men turning it around is a special surprise. Canada's had an unambiguously good tournament, racking up one of their largest-ever victories with an 8-0 thrashing of Barbados and getting the required results against fellow CONCACAF middle powers like Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago. The usual rule with Canada is that we do the job against the minnows but stumble against teams that should be our equals: well, the U-17 team is getting beyond that at least.
The CONCACAF U-17 Championships aren't over, of course. Canada's achieved their goal of qualifying for the U-17 World Cup but there's still a tournament to win. The Miniature Reds face Panama on Friday; an eminently winnable game although Panama raised some eyebrows with a classy win over Costa Rica two days ago. Win that, and we play the winner of United States - Jamaica in the final: surely the Americans, you may think, except that the United States has looked surprisingly uninspiring this tournament and the game has plenty of upset potential.
It's possible Canada will walk away with yet another prize for our trophy cupboard. What? Canada? Maybe this country is turning it around after all.
It doesn't take much perception to see what's different about this Canadian U-17 team. This generation of U-17 players is the first to have had significant opportunities with Canadian professional club academies, and it shows. Five members of the team, including captain Bryce Alderson, hail from the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency. Four more are with the Toronto FC Academy and the relatively nascent Montreal Impact Academy also provides their share. Only midfielder Sam Piette, of FC Metz, comes from Europe and the remainder are plucked as usual from various youth clubs in Ontario (although some are linked to MLS academies in the near future).
This seems like a very obvious sort of explanation for why Canada was able to considerably outplay the usually-formidable Socca Warriors of Trinidad and Tobago. But it's a hard conclusion to escape. The Canadians were generally taller and stronger than the Trinidadians but that's been the case as far back as I can remember. The difference is that we were also technically sounder: while Canada didn't play perfectly, they were fairly reliable and showed plenty of talent and enterprise. Alderson and Keven Aleman (who scored an otherworldly goal with his left foot) particularly stood out in this regard. They weren't just individually skilled players: they ran plays with their teammates. Aleman was gunning for offense but in his position he should have and, besides, it worked. Alderson was playing more of a two-way game, and it was only very late in the contest with the Canadians tiring in ferociously hot and humid conditions that the Trinidadians could get anything by him.
Canada charged out to a 2-0 first half lead thanks to Aleman and Christopher Nanco, then they just held on. They got a couple more chances, and the Trinidadians a few half-opportunities, but nothing serious. Not only did Canada win 2-0, but they retained an element of control throughout. It's the sort of game I've always said Canada usually doesn't win, except that we've been winning a few of them lately.
By no means has the Canadian U-17 team been the dominant team of the tournament. Notwithstanding the Jamaican commentator's opinion that we're the best team he's seen so far, we haven't had the most difficult road to the semi-final. But you can only beat the teams you have to play and that's exactly what we've done. Canada still hasn't conceded a goal. That doesn't equate to dominance or even the status of "favourite": Panama is every bit as good a defensive team as we are and, of course, there's the colossus of the Americans. Maybe this isn't their best crop of young players (until they take ours, anyway) but they're still a force to be reckoned with.
Moreover, the really stiff test will come in March when the Canadian U-20 team tries to qualify for their World Cup. The U-20 team has endured some horrible results in friendlies for the past two years, and the appointment of coach Valerio Gazzola has been a magnet for criticism. When certain detractors of the Canadian Soccer Association want to point to a program that's failing, they point to the Canadian men's U-20s. Maybe they haven't been looking for results in their friendlies and will turn it around when the games start to count, but I'm not that optimistic.
Maybe I should be, though. Slowly but inexorably, Canada is moving up in the soccer world. The day may yet be approaching where we view playing in World Cup not as a once-in-a-lifetime prize but as our birthright. The U-17s got us one step closer yesterday. There are many steps still to come, but give them time.