Sean Fleming has led Canada’s Under-17 national team to victory in do-or-die World Cup qualifiers in the past two cycles. On Sunday, he’s looking to make it three in a row.
But he knows that if his team is going to be successful in Sunday’s playoff match against Costa Rica at the CONCACAF U-17 Championship, there are a few things his players will need to do.
“Stay in the moment. Don’t look ahead, don’t look behind, just stay in the moment,” Fleming told reporters over the phone on Saturday. “Be disciplined in how we’re going to play, be disciplined in your interactions with the opponents and interactions with the official.
“And thirdly, just do your job. Keep it as simple as possible and do your job.”
Canada finished second in Group B after compiling three wins, a draw and a loss. Under the new tournament rules, that put them in a one-game playoff with a World Cup berth on the line. As luck would have it, their opponent will be Costa Rica, whom Canada already defeated 3-2 in the group stage on March 3.
Fleming – who is generally a fan of the new format, which guarantees each team at least five games – said that despite the unique circumstances, he’ll be preparing for the game like any other.
“They’re on a bit of a roll now, after we beat them,” Fleming said of the Costa Rican team. “We know they’re in a good moment, but we feel we’re in a good moment.
“We’re preparing as if it’s the first time we’re playing them. We’ve just got to have a game plan and be ready.”
Part of that game plan involves settling the nerves of his teenage players, most of whom have never been in a game of this magnitude. But Fleming has plenty of experience to draw upon when it comes to handling the situation.
“One of the boys said this morning, ‘This is the biggest game of our lives’ and I said ‘thus far’. I said, ‘I hope you guys have many big games like this in your careers.’
“It really is now just 90 minutes of football. The kids in the past two cycles that we’ve been in these qualifying games, they’ve gone out and done that – really focused on their jobs, really done the simple things well,” Fleming said. “Keep yourself focused in key moments and make sure you’re prepared as well as possible.”
Despite dealing with injuries and a suspension earlier in the competition, Fleming said he has his entire roster available for the Costa Rica match. And while he is determined to lead Canada to the U-17 FIFA World Cup for the third straight time, he believes his players have already made great strides, regardless of Sunday’s result.
“The results they’ve got with the performances they’ve put up, it’s a great sign for us going forward. If we get the bonus of getting some World Cup games, that’s fantastic, too,” Fleming said.
“We hope (these players will) go on to be a good fit for our Under-20 and senior men’s program. That, really, is what my main goal is – to try and get as many players to move on to the next level, the next stage of their development.”
Of course, reaching the World Cup (to be played in Chile from Oct. 17 to Nov. 8) would provide even more development opportunities for this crop of players. And in that World Cup quest, Fleming and his team have received plenty of encouragement from elsewhere in the Canadian soccer community.
“I’ve had messages from many of the previous U-17 (players) I’ve had go to World Cups. And a couple of the players from the World Cup ’86 team, some of the senior players,” said Fleming. “It’s great to see that kind of legacy, that you see the players from 1986 with a big interest in the kids now, and wanting to wish them all the best.
“It’s a fantastic link between our history and our new history that we’re going to try and create.”
Daniel Squizzato covers the Canadian National Team for MLSsoccer.com.