The Canadian u17 MNT set off on their journey for World Cup glory tomorrow evening.
Most of the players in the 21-man squad come from the academies of Canada’s three MLS clubs, including no fewer than seven representatives from Montreal Impact.
I had the chance to chat with midfielder Matthew Catavolo and goalkeeper Benjamin Collins yesterday at Centre Nutrilait as they eagerly await Friday’s departure to Argentina, where Les Rouges will spend valuable preparation time before the serious business begins on 26 October.
And what a beginning the Canadian lads will have to the tournament, when they take on hosts Brazil in the opening match in Brasilia, where the semi-finals, final and 3rd/4th place match will all take place.
Matthew sees the high profile start as a positive thing however.
“Sometimes with the big occasion of an opening match it can work out well for the underdog. It did for us when we played the USA, also hosts, in the first game of the CONCACAF competition, when we almost snatched a draw.”
Canada raced to a 2-0 half-time lead in that game back in May, but eventually succumbed 2-3 to an American side including Sporting Kansas’ Gianluca Busio and Gio Reyna of Borussia Dortmund. Reyna is the son of former US-international captain, Claudio.
Goalkeeper Benjamin was on the Canadian bench for that one, and recalls the game vividly, making sense of the reverse in a mature and balanced way.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like that, us coming in at half-time 2-0 up. That wasn’t the game plan, it was unexpected and there was a sense of ‘what now?’ I think both teams possibly panicked at half-time. Sometimes that can work positively for a team, and it did for them.
“We weren’t performing the best. We had two chances and two goals. And even if we didn’t go out second-half to play cautiously, I think subconsciously we did so. You don’t expect to be 2-up at half-time against the hosts and favourites.
“We were blinded a little by that scoreline and didn’t realize there were some clean-ups, and in the second-half we were punished.”
With New Zealand and Angola, the other teams in their World Cup group, Canada possibly has its best chance to finally win a game at the tournament. In six previous appearances and 18 games, the Canucks have drawn 4 and lost 14, although encouragingly the best results have come in the improving, latter years. That win, if it finally arrives, is likely to see Canada progress to the Round of 16, which also provides room for the four best third-placed nations.
Says Matthew, “It’s one of our best chances to go through. Besides Brazil, Angola from what I know is probably a very physical game, we’ll have to put our big-boy pants on that game. That’s where your physical conditioning will come in. Playing 90 minutes is not easy against them.
“And New Zealand, I don’t know what to expect but every game is like a war and you have go and get the three points. It’s the World Cup!”
Both agree that getting out of the group will be considered success, and that is the target set for the boys by Canada Soccer.
Benjamin: “Speaking of New Zealand, that’s probably a game we have to win, Brazil, it’s a learning experience. Opening game, we’ll see, anything can happen, I’m sure the stands will be full, nerves will be high, there’s more pressure on them.
“Angola, you just don’t know. African Nations? Mali does extremely well at u17, Nigeria have won it 5 times, and Angola, another African nation, these are the best players in that country and they must have quality, so ... “
Benjamin played in two of the CONCACAF qualifying campaign games, including the last one, a semi-final defeat against the USA, and Matthew all six. Catavolo, a good technical player, with a low sense of gravity, also took a key penalty, the second one, in the crucial shoot-out against Costa Rica in the quarter-final which ensured World Cup qualification.
“I’ve taken penalties previously, so it wasn’t the first one. But I knew this one particularly was special, but I was confident. I knew what I wanted to do before I shot. And then placed it in the bottom right corner.”
No negative thoughts then?
“There’s always that little thought, but as much as possible you have to take it out of your head, and once you get to the spot take a good deep breath, compose yourself and put it in.
“It went low to the goalie’s left. He went the right way, but it was well-placed.”
If the emotion at converting his own pk in the shoot-out was more one of relief, then it was simply pure elation when Vancouver Whitecaps’ Gianfranco Facchinieri converted the winning kick.
Both boys’ eyes light up when they talk about the moment. Clearly it was a magical highlight in their so far fledgling careers, but one many senior pros never get the chance to experience.
Benjamin: “It was a special moment for sure. One that you think about prior and even after. It still comes into my mind, because it’s qualifying for a World Cup. It’s something as the coaching staff said, ‘no-one can take it away from you and it will be with you for the rest of your life’.
“Special moment for sure. Almost unbelievable. I spent the two weeks after going home trying to wrap my head around I was going to be playing in a World Cup.”
Matthew: “He [Facchinieri] looked really confident. It was an incredible feeling. We knew as soon as the ball went in, we were going to the World Cup! It’s hard to explain. We all ran together in a big circle and started cheering.”
Matthew, Benjamin and the other Impact Academy players preparing for the trip have all had some time under the influence of coach Bernier, so they weren’t so surprised to hear from me the last time Canada met Brazil at an u17 World Cup, the former Impact captain played the full 90 minutes, way back in 1995.
Patrice had already spun them the story, and naturally Benjamin and Matthew each cite the former Impact #8 as a positive influence on their development at the club towards international recognition.
The trip which could last up to 4 weeks, certainly won’t be a holiday for the boys, as some schoolwork will need to be handled while away, followed by more catch-up upon their return. Those all-important grades remain an important part of life for World Cup stars at the u17 level.
All the games can be seen LIVE on TSN. After the opening contest against Brazil on October 26, Angola is Canada’s next opponent (29 October) and then possibly the most crucial of the lot v New Zealand on November 1. The knockout phase runs from November 5 to November 17, the date of the final.
MountRoyalSoccer.com congratulates the Canadian u17 men’s squad for qualifying for the World Cup, and best wishes go to Matthew, Benjamin and all their squad-mates for success in Brazil.
Footnote: The other Impact players that made the Canada squad are as follows: Maxime Bourgeois (CB), Keesean Ferdinand (CB), Tomas Giraldo (MF), Mouhamadou Kane (F), Sean Rea (F). Spare a thought too for Jeremie Omeonga Nkoy, scorer of two goals during the qualifying campaign, who has had to withdraw due to injury.