U-17 World Cup: Canada open vs. Austria with tons of optimism for glory, program's future

While the senior men’s national team sinks to unprecedented depths, the Canadian Under-17 squad is looking to make history of its own … but of a much better sort.

Canada open group-stage play at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup against Austria on Saturday (9 am ET, on Sportsnet World on delay at 7 pm ET) in search of the country’s first-ever win in the competition. Based on Canada’s recent performances, head coach Sean Fleming may just have the mix of players capable of pulling it off.

Toronto FC Academy striker Jordan Hamilton (above) led the way at the CONCACAF Under-17 Championship in April with three goals in five games, while striker Andrew Gordon and midfielder Hanson Boakai added two goals apiece. Canada finished third in the 12-team tournament to book their place in the World Cup for the second straight time, and sixth overall.

The Canadians also managed a 1-1 draw with Russia, the reigning European champion at the U-17 level, earlier this month in a pre-World Cup friendly.

Austria, meanwhile, finished third in its four-team group in the final round of UEFA qualifying to reach the U-17 World Cup for the second time. The team received balanced goal scoring from the likes of Nikola Zivotic, Adrian Grbic and Tobias Pellegrini throughout the three-stage qualifying process, though their journey did include a hiccup in the form of a 0-0 draw with Cyprus.

Austria will also be gunning for their first-ever win in the tournament, after their previous appearance in 1997 ended with three lopsided losses. Canada’s history in the tournament has also been far from stellar – two draws, 13 losses and a minus-42 goal differential spread over five appearances.

Those two draws, however, both came in the 2011 World Cup, a tournament that included a once-in-a-lifetime equalizer against England from Toronto FC goalkeeper Quillan Roberts.

That recent momentum, and the fact that most members of Canada’s roster are part of professional clubs (including all three Canadian MLS teams) is providing hope that a breakthrough may be in store at this year’s 2013 U-17 World Cup.