Assessing Canada's group stage performance at the U17 CONCACAF Championships
The Canadian U17 Men's National team wrapped up the group stages of the U17 CONCACAF Championships on Wednesday, falling 1-0 to their rivals, the US, in their final match.
As a result, Canada fell to 2nd place in Group F, meaning they will take on the third-place finisher in Group H, Haiti, on February 18th.
There, the mission is simple - win two games, and qualify for the U17 World Cup, making it back-to-back qualifications at this level after missing out in 2015 and 2017.
So although Canada will be reeling after falling to the US, especially given how narrowly they lost that match, their main goal is very much still on the table, and they’ll now look to shift their attention towards that ahead of their knockout stage journey.
What to make of group stages?
If they’re to make it to the semi-finals, however, what will they need to tweak from the group stages, one might ask?
The good news is that the answer is pretty straightforward - be more ruthless in both final thirds.
To begin, that starts defensively, where to their credit, Canada has actually been very strong despite conceding three goals in three games. For the most part, they’ve done well to limit the number of chances that teams get against them, doing well to make the life of their goalkeeper, Nathaniel Abraham, as easy as possible.
At the same time, while Canada doesn’t give up many chances, the ones they’ve given up, however, have usually been of the five-alarm variety.
The T&T game is a prime example of that. There, they hardly gave up a chance for the first 65 minutes of the game, but then allowed a slew of them in the last 35 minutes, turning what was going to be a straightforward victory into a tight 3-2 win. Similarly, they also defended relatively well in their final game against the US for most of the match, before allowing a big chance in the 65th minute, one that turned into the goal that ended up winning the US the game, nullifying Canada's hard work from earlier in the game in the process.
To be fair, there are valid reasons why Canada is slipping up later in games, as this tournament has been a gruelling one physically and mentally, featuring three games in six days at altitude, but if Canada is going to want to make it to the World Cup, they’ll need to find a way to overcome that.
Otherwise, in attack, Canada will look to bring a little more sharpness to their play. As they’ve shown across the three games, they have players that can make things happen, such as wing backs Gaël de Montigny, Aidan Fong and Theo Rigopolous, midfielders Alessandro Biello, Jeevan Badwal, Ruben de Sá, Liam McKenzie and Antoine N’Diaye, as well as attackers Lucas Ozmiec, Erik Pop, Kyler Vojvodic and Ibrahim Higazy, but for all of the talent amongst that group, the cohesion and chemistry haven’t always been there for them.
Of course, that is a result of the team not having had multiple camps to work on attacking chemistry, but as they’ve shown in flashes, when they get going through the gears, they can tear down defences with incisive passing and sharp crosses across the box.
But as the US game also showed, they can also be too static at times on the ball, making them predictable to defend, something that could be a problem in these bigger games.
If they can put all of that together, however, they will certainly have a chance to do well. As often seen in these tournaments, having a good defensive foundation is key, and for the most part, Canada showed that they have one during the group stages, so if they can improve on that, and get their offence going, that’ll be a winning formula.
The road to Peru:
Plus, while Canada will be frustrated to think that they made their path toward the U17 World Cup tougher by finishing second, it is worth noting that they’ve also been quite fortunate with how the draw went for them.
It’s far from straightforward, by any means, but they enter this Haiti matchup as favourites, and should they be able to win that, they’ll then play Costa Rica or Puerto Rico in the do-or-die quarter-finals, which is far from the worst-case scenario when it comes to potential opponents for that match.
Given that Canada beat Costa Rica 2-1 at the U17 Copa México back in December, coming as part of their tune-up for this tournament, it’s a much more tantalizing prospect to face them than, say, Mexico, who beat Canada 3-0 at that same tournament.
Of course, a lot has changed since then on both sides, so it’s not to say that history will repeat itself, but it’s certainly a big advantage for Canada to have had that taste of victory against Costa Rica, especially should they face off in a must-win match.
Therefore, while a lot can happen over the next two matches, Canada can head into these knockout stages knowing that they have every reason to believe that they can qualify for the U17 World Cup - now, they just have to go out and execute.
Players to Watch:
Should they make it that far, however, here’s a look at three players that will likely be key in their ability to do so, at least based on what they showed in the group stages.
Returning to that US game, one big absence for Canada? The suspension of Omeze, who missed out on that match due to yellow card accumulation.
A well-rounded centre back, the 16-year-old Toronto FC product was immense for Canada in their matches against T&T and Barbados, proving to be a standout both on and off the ball for his side. Along with his physicality, which allowed him to really set the tone defensively, he’ll bring the sort of energy that Canada needs to dictate play in these bigger games.
As a result, Canada missed him sorely against the US, and will be eager to welcome him back for the Round of 16, where he’ll be expected to slot right back into the starting XI at right centre back.
Despite missing a penalty in the opening game, Vojvodic proved that he is not one to get dogged down by adversity, as he then bagged a brace in open play to avenge that miss, a tally that still stands as the most on his team.
He quieted down a bit in the subsequent matches, unfortunately, but the 16-year-old Vancouver Whitecaps attacker has shown that if you get him the ball in the box, he can cause problems for defenders.
With good movement and a solid first-time finish, look for Canada to try and find him with some crosses, as he tries to find the goals that his team will need to make it through to the U17 World Cup.
Gaël de Montigny:
Given their use of a 3-5-2 formation, that has given a lot of responsibility to the wing backs on this Canadian team to help create offence, giving them full license to roam up the field.
The good news for Canada? That’s a role that de Montigny has had no problem playing this tournament, as he’s proven to be a threat down the left for this side, causing all sorts of issues for opposing defenders with his speed and lethal left foot.
🎥 Canada U17 a remporté son premier match de qualif pour CM U17 3-2 vs Trinidad et Tobago— Patrice Bernier (@pbernier10) February 13, 2023
Trois joueurs @academiecfm étaient dans le XI partant
#3 Gaël De Montigny (2 passes)
#4 Alessandro BIELLO
#10 Antoine N’DIAYE #CFMTL
Able to cross the ball at a high level, anytime he whips in a ball it seems to cause a problem for opposing defenders, providing the sort of service that strikers love to have.
You combine that with his relentless defensive work rate, as he’s also done a lot of work defensively for his team, and that’s a combo that Canada will look to lean on in these games, as they’ll certainly need that sort of energy on the flanks if they’re to do well going forward.
Catch Canada's U17 Men's National team in action vs Haiti LIVE on OneSoccer on February 18th at 8:00 p.m. EST.