For those keeping score at home, the Canadian twenty-man roster is:
GK Marco Carducci (Vancouver, MLS)
GK Nolan Wirth (Oregon State, NCAA Pac-12)
LB Sam Adekugbe (Vancouver, MLS)
LB/MF Jordan Haynes (Vancouver Whitecaps Residency, USSDA)
CB Luca Gasparotto (Rangers, Sco-2 on loan to Airdrieonians, Sco-3)
CB Alex Comsia (RC Strasbourg U-19, Fra-3)
CB Jackson Farmer (Vancouver Whitecaps Residency, USSDA)
CB Brandon John (FC Erzgebirge Aue U-23, Ger-3)
RB Rares "Chris" Serban (University of British Columbia, CIS Canada West)
MF Manny Aparicio (Toronto, MLS)
MF Louis Béland-Goyette (Montreal, MLS)
MF Kianz Froese (Vancouver, MLS)
MF Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé (Montreal, MLS)
MF Chris Nanco (Syracuse, NCAA ACC)
MW/FW Hanson Boakai (Edmonton, NASL)
MF/FW Marco Bustos (Vancouver, MLS)
MF/FW Michael Petrasso (Queens Park Rangers, EPL on loan to Notts County, Eng-3)
FW Calum Ferguson (Inverness Caledonian Thistle, SPL)
FW Jordan Hamilton (Toronto, MLS)
FW Cyle Larin (Unattached FC, Can-1)
The difference between the roster announced by CONCACAF and that announced by the Canadian Soccer Association is that, in the CSA version, midfielder Dylan Carreiro (Dundee, SPL) has been replaced by Whitecaps Residency defender Jackson Farmer. Despite only making his Dundee debut this weekend Carreiro has been kept by his club. With Canada facing a tough road that will call upon the team’s full depth, Carreiro’s presence would have made a difference.
“A tough road”? I say that but supporters expect great things this year. Expectations have never being higher for a Canadian U-20 team. In 2003 we were one of the co-winners of the CONCACAF tournament and went to extra time in the World Cup quarterfinal: that team was less eagerly-anticipated than this one*. The Canadian U-20 soccer version of pressure (a dozen mentally ill maniacs like me screaming black fury at a dodgy webstream) will be on.
Should we be so optimistic? Canada’s list is short of blue-chip prospects in the world’s top academies. Hanson Boakai is a terrific young player, if he’s recovered from the injury he reportedly suffered in training, but FC Edmonton isn’t quite Manchester United. Haiti has Bryan Alceus at Bordeaux and Stephane Lambese at Paris St-Germain. Honduras’s Júnior Lacayo is at Santos Laguna. Most of our opponents are less well-blessed, but majority of their rosters plays each other every week in a domestic league while the Canadian lineup, as ever, comes from all over Hell’s half-acre.
Yet there is reason for positivity. This Canadian corps is more accomplished than, I think, any equivalent group we’ve ever had. By my count twelve of these twenty players have experience playing full professional soccer against grown men. In a few cases this is only a game or two, but players such as Petrasso, Boakai, and Adekugbe have reasonably established themselves in a professional eighteen. The 2013 team included a few professionals such as Caleb Clarke and Doneil Henry but the large majority were collegiates or academy members (including Petrasso, the only returning member of the 2013 team). While Canada’s lineup is widely-scattered, we’re better off than some: eleven Canadian U-20s play in Canada, while only eight American U-20s play in the United States.
One of those professional players is Marco Bustos, who made his first team debut last summer in the Voyageurs Cup and will be on the Whitecaps’ MLS roster in 2015. You’re glad to see him here? Good. Yes, Bustos went flirting with the Chilean national team and we can never know whether Canada is his first choice. But that doesn’t mean we should assume the worst. I’ve always said Bustos’s Chilean aspiration should be forgiven by the fans if he shows commitment to the Canadian program going forward and so far he’s passing the test. I’ll be cheering Bustos on as hard as Boakai, Froese, or any of my other favourites because what else is he supposed to do for us, break Teal Bunbury over his knee like the Iron Sheik? (Actually that would be nice; one thing at a time.) As a fan, I demand loyalty from our players but that’s a two-way street: when the players are doing the right thing they deserve my loyalty in return.
Notable by his absence is Fraser Aird, who has been teasing the Canadian program for years now and is now missing an essential tournament. There is a nice counterpoint to Marco Bustos. Aird has been in and out of the Rangers lineup and, according to Gale, was not released by his club. Maybe so. Some people always have an excuse.
The late naming of Jackson Farmer obviates one worry: the modest aerial powers of Canada’s back four behind Gasparotto and Comsia. I’m informed Brandon John is a centreback but he doesn’t seem to have the height for it: he’s the second-shortest guy in his row on the team photo and the Canadian Soccer Association lists him at 5’9.5″. Sam Adekugbe has good height for a left back but Chris Serban is undersized and, though he can play anywhere on the pitch except possibly goal, Jordan Haynes is really a midfielder. Filling this hole was a sensible move by Rob Gale once he lost Carreiro. Farmer got the nod over FC Edmonton defender Marko Aleksic, another big (6’3″) CB who was involved in the U-20 program leading up to this tournament and has a half’s NASL experience under his belt.
Right back Serban is the only CIS player on the roster and a relatively new name to many fans. I believe, though I cannot prove, that Serban is the first CIS/CIAU to represent Canada in a U-20 tournament since Wilfrid Laurier goalkeeper Pieter Meuleman at the 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship†. Serban was largely unknown to the wider community until he joined the Whitecaps Residency in February then spent the 2014 USL PDL season with the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s. There, he was very good against older, larger players at a level that was a huge step up. One of three Calgarians on this team (with Adekugbe and Carducci), Serban is an advertisement for how far the scouting apparatus in this country has to go: how is it someone at his level had to take such a round-about route to the Canadian national program? I’m not saying he’s a dominant player, but he clearly belongs on this stage and we’ll never know what we missed by not realizing that years sooner.
The forwards are getting a lot of hype. Jordan Hamilton is hugely popular out east, and scored prodigiously (a goal per 90 minutes) on loan to the USL Pro Wilmington Hammerheads. But a loan to Portugal’s second division was a disaster and he once again has a lot to prove. I don’t rate Hamilton as much as others: he’s played very well at times but I have yet to be convinced of his all-round game. Yet, the Portugal loan aside, he’s consistently earned results and that’s all that counts. Even with my doubts Hamilton is unquestionably in my starting eleven until someone else proves he’s better.
Alongside Hamilton is likely Cyle Larin, a 6’2″ forward late of the University of Connecticut. It’s hard to overemphasize how highly-touted Larin is by Canadian fans despite having never played a professional game and seeing his production at UConn drop from 2013 to 2014; he’s not exactly a golden boy but he’s close, helped by an American hype machine that loves fashionable NCAA players and the air of mystery that settles over those almost none of us watch regularly. In spite of rumoured European interest it now looks like Larin will settle for an MLS contract and an early pick in the upcoming SuperDraft. He, too, has a lot to prove (actually, much more than Hamilton does). Larin has made three senior appearances for Canada off the bench and hasn’t looked bad, but it’s a long way between fifteen good minutes against tired defenders and being The Man at a full tournament. We will see.
No sign of FC Edmonton’s Sadi Jalali, who’s been a big part of this group, supposedly played well at the Milk Cup, and has U-17 World Cup experience. This was a tough nut to crack for Jalali: he was never going to get past Hamilton and Larin so that left him battling Calum Ferguson for the first forward spot off the bench. Jalali is a relatively compact player without much speed, and there are sharp disagreements on how highly to rate him. I think he has something, can make a reasonably effective battering ram when his work rate and confidence are high, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen in flashes from him (while acknowledging that the aggregate is not brilliant). Ferguson is also a small player but is more of an unknown quantity (he has yet to make his professional debut) and the coaches have seen a lot of him. Brody Huitema, who was a terrific USSDA player and seems to have all the tools but hasn’t put it together at Duke yet, is also missing out. It’s a twenty-man roster and something has to give, but how nice that we can have this sort of debate over depth.
What will Canada do? This format makes exact predictions difficult. The tournament is divided into two groups of six teams each. The first-place team from each group automatically qualifies for the U-20 World Cup and will play in the final. The second- and third-place teams from each group play off against each other, and the winner of those playoff games take the last two U-20 World Cup spots. This means, in short, that for us middling sides it’s going to be a fucking knife fight from kickoff to final whistle.
Canada has the tough group, headlined by Mexico and Honduras with strong second-ranker El Salvador and two of the best third-rate sides in Haiti and Cuba. The island nations are always mysterious, especially Cuba behind their sporting Iron Curtain, but as mentioned Haiti has a couple players in first-rate French academies and Cuba always seems to spring a surprise on somebody in these events. Haiti also has the potential advantage of playing Mexico last: if Mexico has cinched first place the Haitians may get a B-team. Mexico will be heavy favourites for first, and below this group could go absolutely anywhere.
Canada should be able to sneak into third or second. (If they can’t hang with Honduras then this team simply hasn’t got the quality expected.) This would lead to a winner-take-all playoff against one of the Group A teams, and apart from the pressure this won’t be so bad. With the Americans likely to win that group we’d be probably looking at Panama or Jamaica, maybe Guatemala. The downside is that, by this point, Canada will have spent two weeks competing in the Jamaican sun. The Central American teams will be more used to the conditions and may be fresher. If it’s Jamaica, the home crowd will be passionately behind them.
Even today, in early January, temperatures in Montego Bay can reach 30 degrees Celcius with humidity around 80%. This doesn’t just impact the players but the field, as the natural grass at the Montego Bay Sports Complex will host a full twenty-four games during this 15-day tournament and, especially if the forecasted rain materializes, will inevitably be worn down. In such conditions it can become less a battle of skill and more a test of endurance which doesn’t favour a Canadian team that, for once, is short on pure athletes. This augurs very well for our future national team hopes but, looking narrowly at this one tournament, we will be at a disadvantage.
I like many of the players on this team, there’s a lot of skill at all positions, and I’m still not sure we have a 50% chance of getting to the U-20 World Cup.
* — A slightly irrelevant digression. Look back at that successful 2003 team. Twelve years later only four of the players from that roster are a going concern. One of those four is Atiba Hutchinson, the best Canadian men’s player of our generation, and another is David Edgar, who at the time of the 2003 tournament was a mewling infant. There were some unlucky players like Gordon Chin and Andres Arango who should have stuck around longer than they did, and two genuinely talented men absolutely skull-fucked by the injury gods in Josh Simpson and Jason DiTullio. But injuries will strike any group of players. Four guys. Think about that when you annoit this group the future of our national team.
† — Simon Fraser University defender Vince Stewart was on the Canadian roster for the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship, but at the time SFU’s soccer program competed in the American NAIA.
 — “Official Rosters Announced for Teams Competing in CONCACAF Under-20 Championship Jamaica 2015.” CONCACAF, January 5, 2015. Accessed January 5, 2015. http://us6.campaign-archive1.com/?u=78d3589fb61466b549ff752e5&id=c84d001a86&e=0ab14c42c9.
 — Canadian Soccer Association. “Canada M20 announces roster for CONCACAF Championship.” January 5, 2015. Accessed January 5, 2015. http://canadasoccer.com/canada-m20-announces-roster-for-concacaf-championship-p157331.
 — Massey, Benjamin. “Another Conditional Canadian: Marco Bustos Joins Chile U-20.” Maple Leaf Forever!, July 6, 2014. Accessed January 5, 2015. http://www.maple-leaf-forever.com/2014/07/06/another-conditional-canadian-marco-bustos-joins-chile-u-20/.
 — Tunstall, Brooke. “MLS Improves Offer, Comes To Terms With Cyle Larin.” American Soccer Now, January 4, 2015. Accessed January 5, 2015. http://americansoccernow.com/articles/mls-improves-offer-signs-uconn-star-cyle-larin.
 — “Montego Bay, Jamaica.” The Weather Network. Accessed January 5, 2015. http://www.theweathernetwork.com/weather/jamaica/saint-james/montego-bay?switchto=c.