PUEBLA, Mexico – There was a time where games against Cuba and Nicaragua would be a relatively easy ask for a Canadian soccer team.
But as both countries have made strides recently in terms of youth player development, Canada recognize that their CONCACAF Under-20 World Cup qualifying group will by no means be a cake-walk as Canada tries to get back to the U-20 World Cup for the first time since 2007.
Canadian U-20 head coach Nick Dasovic has spent significant time scouting his two opponents as part of his team’s preparations for the upcoming qualifying tournament that for Canada get underway on Monday vs. Cuba (9 pm ET, streamed live on sportsnet.ca in Canada).
And while the relatively isolated nature of the Cuban soccer program makes it a tough proposition to scout, Dasovic insists they've done their research.
“We know them quite well, actually,” Dasovic said about Cuba on a media conference call earlier this month. “The biggest thing is you're playing against countries that are going to be very motivated.”
After Monday’s game, Canada will then watch their two group rivals battle on Wednesday night before returning to action against Nicaragua on Friday.
“I watched Nicaragua play in a tournament in Honduras where they beat Honduras and they’re no slouches,” Dasovic said. “They’re legitimate. They were very tactically set up.”
If Canada are able to pull off a victory on Monday, and depending on how the Wednesday game plays out, they could head into their Friday game with their spot in the knockout round already assured.
In order to prepare for the altitude and air quality, the Canadian team has been set up in Mexico City since February 11 prior to making the brief trek to the tournament site in here in Puebla. Dasovic wanted to leave no stones unturned when it comes to his team’s preparations.
“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure we’re diligent in our preparation," he said. "And we don’t have any excuses at the end of the day."
Dasovic will be relying on six players from MLS clubs and their academies, but will have to do without Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Bryce Alderson, who was on the initial 23-man roster but left off due to injury. The other two players let go were Whitecaps Residency player Yassin Essa and Jordan Murrell from Syracuse University.
CANADIAN U-20 NATIONAL TEAM SQUAD:
Goalkeepers (2): Ricky Gomes (Sport Clubs de Mirandela/Portugal), Maxime Crepeau (Montreal Impact Academy)
Defenders (6): Jon Dollery (Crawley Town/England), Marco Lapenna (Erzgebirge Aue/Germany), Doneil Henry (Toronto FC), Daniel Stanese (FC Nürnberg/Germany), Manjrekar James (PMFC-MATIAS/Hungary), Allan Zebie (FC Edmonton)
Midfielders (9): Samuel Piette (Fortuna Dusseldorf/Germany), Ben Fisk (Vancouver Whitecaps), Keven Aleman (Real Valladolid/Spain), Michael Petrasso (Queens Park Rangers/England), Dylan Carreiro (Queens Park Rangers/England), Alessandro Riggo (Celta de Vigo/Spain), Mauro Eustaquio (Sporting Clube de Pombal/Portugal), Zakaria Messoudi (Montreal Impact Academy), Ben McKendry (University of New Mexico)
Forwards (3): Caleb Clarke (Vancouver Whitecaps), Anthony Jackson-Hamel (Montreal Impact Academy), Stefan Vukovic (unattached).
Gavin Day covers the Canadian national team for MLSsoccer.com.