Commentary: Canadian U-23 team remains a mystery

With less than two months until the CONCACAF men’s Olympic qualification tournament kicks off, there seem to be more questions than answers when it comes to Canada’s entry.

The American U-23 side has just finished up its latest of many pre-qualifying camps, Mexico have had their U-23 program in motion since last summer and the same can be said for El Salvador and Panama, so Canadian fans can be excused for looking at their southern neighbors with a bit of envy.

While Caleb Porter has held recent auditions in Europe and in the United States for his potential charges, leading to extensive debate among American fans on who will make the final cut, the conversation about their Canadian counterparts is alarmingly silent.

The simple explanation is that there hasn’t been anything to talk about.

What is known is that Canada’s Olympic hopefuls will be coached by Tony Fonseca, who doubles as Stephen Hart’s assistant on the full national team’s staff. The Canucks will host a short pre-qualification camp for 30 hopefuls some time in March, and those selected for the final roster will immediately proceed to Nashville, Tenn., for the CONCACAF tournament opener against El Salvador on March 22.

The hope is that the young Canadians will gel quickly, having participated in their lone identification camp just days before the games count for real. They don’t really have a choice.

It was the same scenario four years ago, when current Canadian U-20 coach Nick Dasovic was tasked with forming a cohesive unit with just a week’s preparation. That squad featured the likes of future MLSers Dejan Jakovic, Will Johnson and Andre Hainault, as well as current Stoke City goalkeeper Asmir Begovic.

The Canadians did well enough to scrape through the group stage and on to the semifinal, but their lack of preparation and a gulf in talent was their ultimate undoing in a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of a powerhouse US team.

While it’s hard to blame that 2008 side for not being good enough to qualify, questions do have be asked about why they weren’t better prepared. Soccer is filled with tales of highly organized underdogs overcoming better opponents, with hard work and refined tactics making up for the gap in talent.

Yet, with that close-but-not-quite-good-enough Olympic qualifying campaign still relatively fresh in the collective memory of Canadian soccer fans, it’s become apparent that Fonseca’s side will head into the 2012 tournament under the same circumstances.

Possible Canadian U-23 call-ups

The roster for Fonseca’s 30-man camp in March is still being formed, but NASL side FC Edmonton announced last week that three of their players –  Shaun Saiko, Kyle Porter and Michal Misiewicz –  had been invited. Aside from those three, there have been no official announcements, leaving ample room for speculation.

It would stand to reason that MLS will be well-represented when the squad is announced. Toronto FC’s Ashtone Morgan (above left), Matt Stinson and Doneil Henry have all made great cases for their inclusion, although a heavy March schedule for TFC could limit their involvement.

Vancouver’s Russell Teibert (above right)  will surely be called in for a look, as well as Montreal Impact Supplemental Draft pick Evan James (right). Seattle’s SuperDraft pick Babayele Sodade was monitored at the combine by Fonseca and Hart, and Colorado Rapids’ youngster Josh Janniere is said to be under consideration.

The list could also include NCAA standouts Allando Matheson from UConn, Kyle Bekker of Boston College and Denver’s Drew Beckie, as well as a sprinkling of academy players.

On the European side, there’s a wealth of talent to be had, although securing players’ releases may turn out to be Fonseca’s biggest task. St. Johnstone’s Marcus Haber (above middle) – who took part in the 2008 tournament as a 19-year-old – would be a great addition to the Canucks U-23 side, but he’s also a key attacking cog in a Saints team that is doing exceedingly well in the Scottish Premier League this season.

In the same vein, Fonseca will be hard-pressed to obtain the services of newly-signed Randy Edwini-Bonsu of 2.Bundesliga club Eintracht Braunschweig. Fellow German-based Canadian Adam Straith, who already has several full national team caps to his name, is in the same boat, having grabbed himself an automatic spot on FC Energie Cottbus’ game day roster.

Defensive midfield duo Ethan Gage (Reading, England) and Joseph Di Chiara (FC Krylia Sovetov Samara, Russia) would both be locks if available. Genoa goalkeeping prospect Roberto Stillo warrants a look, as does Cardiff City’s Jordan Santiago.

Overall, there are quite a few weapons available to Fonseca. The challenge will be getting them to form a cohesive unit in a very short time.