TORONTO – A wild month for Canadian soccer continues.
There’s the MLS Cup Playoff run from Toronto FC, the National Team and their progression in the Concacaf Nations League, and on Saturday afternoon the FIFA U17 World Cup kicks off in Brazil with the Canadian side lining up opposite the host nation.
Drawn into Group A alongside Brazil, Angola, and New Zealand, Canada will be looking to reach the second round for the first time in their history at the tournament.
Up first are the Brazilians, on TSN2 at 3:30 pm. Canada will play the Angolans on October 29 and Kiwis on November 1.
TFC will be represented by eight players – defenders Kobe Franklin and Rohan Goulbourne, midfielders Ralph Priso, Deandre Kerr, and Julian Altobelli and forwards Jacen Russell-Rowe and Jayden Nelson, as well as goalkeeper, Eleias Himaras.
Just some of the many burgeoning talents coming up before the eyes of the TFC Academy staff.
“I’ve not seen anything like it and I’ve been at a lot of clubs,” said Greg Vanney. “Where we have this many young players, between the ages of 16 and 19, that are worthy of everything that we can throw at them to give them the shot to get to MLS.”
Vanney has spoken in the past about how these international experiences are invaluable to a developing player, widening horizons, opening up the possibilities.
The players are looking forward to the challenge.
“Very excited,” said Ralph Priso. “It’s my first big international tournament. It will be good.”
“In Concacaf it is showing that Canada is not one of the small guys. We can compete with the US and Mexico if we put out our best game,” explained the midfielder. “Going to the World Cup we want to show we can play, can hang with the rest of the world.”
Nelson too is eager to make the most of the rare opportunity.
“It’s not normal that a Canadian team qualifies for a U17 World Cup, so I want to take the experience and make the best of it,” said Nelson.
Canada has only appeared in two of the last 11 editions of the competition, a trend Nelson hopes is a thing of the past.
“I’ve seen the Canadian [program] really grow,” said the forward. “We’re going towards something good, the young players coming up now. This is the first step to something great.”
“It’s great to see the best players in Canada. There is a lot of quality coming up,” added Nelson about the rest of the squad. “It’s exciting to see what Canada has come to, how the players are developing.”
Canada earned their spot in Brazil back in May with a Quarterfinal win over Costa Rica.
Having exchanged penalty kicks either side of half-time, the two sides remained tied at ones after extra time. It was the Canadians who emerged victories after winning the shootout 4-3.
Both Nelson and Priso described the spot kicks as “nerve-wracking”.
“I got injured in the first half, subbed off,” said Priso. “I don’t even know the words to explain it.”
Canada reached the knockout stage with strong wins over Guatemala and Barbados, narrowly beat by the United States for second place in Group F.
They then beat Curacao 4-0 in the Round of 16 to set the date with the Costa Ricans.
“We blew out teams during the group stage and when it got to the quarters we were winning 1-0 at half-time and 90 minutes come, we’re in penalties,” recalled Nelson. “To be honest, I was kind of scared we weren’t going to qualify, but we pulled through.”
Both players were with Canada at the U15 Concacaf Championships as well and both will be disappointed with a 4-0 defeat by the USA in the semifinal.
“We did well,” summed up Priso. “Obviously, we could have done better in the semifinal.”
For the teenagers representing the country in Brazil, this is an interesting time for Canadian soccer: the senior men’s team just ended a long dry-spell against the Americans with a 2-0 win at BMO Field, the likes of Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David are beginning their careers in Europe, and Jonathan Osorio and Richie Laryea are excelling for their hometown club.
“It’s very inspiring for us. They were in our shoes not to long ago,” said Priso. “It shows that if we do the right things, if we stay on top of what we have to stay on top of, keep playing at a high level, we can get there eventually and that it is possible.”
Nelson added: “It’s not normal to see a Canadian guy go to Bayern Munich, or Jonathan David scoring every day in the Europa League. It’s something to look forward to, know that we can do it too.”
The 2019 FIFA U17 World Cup is now, but long in the horizon lies another such tournament.
In 2026, Canada, along with the USA and Mexico, will host the FIFA World Cup. It is a target for the young men starting off their careers.
“That’s my goal,” smiled Nelson. “A big goal of mine, to play in that 2026 World Cup. It’s a blessing to be honest. I can’t wait for those days to come.”