No Canadian television; free live stream at CONCACAF.com
I don't often make game-day threads for U-20 games. Not even I, who would watch the Canadian U-7 cerebral palsy beach soccer team taking on South Ossetia in a friendly if I could find a stream for it, consider U-20 games to be life-changing events. Oh, they're important, don't get me wrong; we just had that conversation. But I don't really expect the world to get wound up for our youth national team the way we ought to put our lives on hold for the senior side. Still, this is a special occasion on a couple of levels.
First off, it's our U-20 team's first kick at World Cup qualifying. Drawn into a group with
Panama Costa Rica and Guadeloupe, Canada's looking to finish in first place and win their quarter-final game: a berth in the semi-final also means a berth in the World Cup. The job is not that formidable on paper: we ought (I say ought) to be able to beat Costa Rica most of the time and should be able to get a result against Guadeloupe as well. While this is far, far from our strongest U-20 pool of all time and there have been plenty of questions surrounding head coach Valerio Gazzola's competence, we're not exactly grouped with Mexico and Costa Rica here. This is a perfectly winnable group and anything less than a 2-0-0 record would be a failure.
Second, having just laid my hubris bare for all to see, I want to remind Canadians (and indeed Costa Ricans) of a key CONCACAF fact that we all forget about sometimes. Guadeloupe doesn't suck. You just think they suck because they can't qualify for the World Cup and they're part of France. Maybe you confuse them with Martinique sometimes. But seriously, this isn't like if the French national team played Newfoundland. Guadeloupe's claimed bigger scalps than ours before, and just because they can't qualify for the World Cup doesn't mean they can't knock us out of this tournament if we let them.
When I say "Guadeloupe doesn't suck", I want to make sure we take this in context. First, you won't believe this but I don't know a hell of a lot about the Guadeloupan youth setup. Their qualification route for this tournament wasn't exactly formidable: they knocked off Antigua 4-0 and drew 1-1 with Bermuda, both CONCACAF minnows. 19-year old Thomas Grava bagged a brace in the Antigua game, but as far as I can tell he doesn't play club soccer with anybody worthy of a Wikipedia page. The rest of the roster is a good question. Frankly, I won't pretend I have any great insights on the Guadeloupan players; they seem to play in some 18th-century haze where no information is available. I can't even get a reliable copy of their roster. The one on the CONCACAF website seems to be for their senior team, unless Guadeloupe can drag a bunch of 30-something-year-old players to this tournament for no reason.
I base my warnings about Guadeloupe purely on history. Their only previous crack at the full U-20 tournament was in 1992, when Canada hosted the tournament and Guadeloupe was drawn into a group with us and Cuba. Playing out of Burnaby's Swangard Stadium, Canada bumped off Guadeloupe 4-2 and the Cubans thumped them 3-0; that was all she wrote for Guadeloupe. But in recent years the Guadeloupan senior team has been the most reliably victorious team among CONCACAF's minnows: the only losses for their full team were two defeats to Jamaica in the 2010 Caribbean Championship, one of which came on penalties in the final. In the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Guadeloupe beat Panama and Nicaragua, acquitted themselves well against Mexico, but were ultimately thrashed by Costa Rica in the first knockout stage. And, of course, in 2007 Guadeloupe famously made the semifinal. Of course the senior teams and youth teams are different animals, but Guadeloupe's youth haven't tested themselves against the best of CONCACAF yet and it remains to be seen how they'll perform. The history of their senior team suggests that Canada would underestimate them at their peril.
Frankly, Canada's no holy terror either. Back when we tried to qualify for the U-20 World Cup in 2009, the results were poor: a 1-0 loss to Trinidad and Tobago, a 2-1 loss to Costa Rica, and (unbelievably) a 2-0 win over a surprisingly hapless Mexico thanks to a brace by Randy Edwini-Bonsu. As such, we didn't even get out of the group stages and suffered the indignity of watching Costa Rica, the United States, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago get through. But by all pre-tournament accounts that team was far stronger than the bunch of kids we're going to war with this year.
In 2010 and 2011, Canada's played seven full U-20 internationals and won once, beating Trinidad and Tobago 1-0 in February off a John Pegg goal. We've lost to the United States in two games by a combined score of 7-0. We lost 1-0 to South Korea, 2-0 to Senegal, and mustered a 1-1 draw to Equatoreal Guinea. We're not good, not in any sense, and unless this team has really been jogging through its preparation matches we're going to have a hell of a time getting further than the quarter-finals. There are some good players there: Julien Latendresse-Levesque is considered a top goalkeeping prospect in Germany, Russell Teibert needs no introduction to anyone reading this site, and most likely neither does Ethan Gage. A good mix of veterans (such as you can have veterans in a U-20 tournament) and youth. But they've been a step behind in almost every game they've played since the last attempt at qualifying for the U-20 World Cup.
Do I sound pessimistic? I am. We might be writing Guadeloupe off as a minnow but I increasingly think we might be a minnow ourselves.