For Canada to qualify for a third straight International Soccer Federation (FIFA) Under-17 men’s World Cup, they will have to overcome some leading Confederation of North, Central American & Caribbean Associations of Soccer (CONCACAF) teams.
The regional competition starts on Saturday in Honduras.
In the new format of two six-team groups, the group winner will compete in the tournament final and the second and third-place teams crossover with the other group to meet for the final World Cup berths.
Canada is in the same group with five-time and defending champions Mexico, 1994 winners Costa Rica and 2013 runner-up Costa Rica.
The national team begins play on Saturday against Haiti. They will then meet Costa Rica on March 3, Mexico three days later, St. Lucia on March 9 and Panama on March 12. The games start at 8:30 p.m. EST.
National coach, Sean Fleming, acknowledges that his side faces a tough challenge in the next two weeks.
“We know with the qualifying procedure how difficult it will be with games every third day with the heat,” he said. “And we know the quality of the opponents. It’s a very tough group compared to the other group, in my opinion, and it’s going to be five very good quality games.
“It’s going to take a very disciplined, committed team effort. I think that we are strong as a team and that we will be difficult to play against. If we become individuals, it would be not to our advantage to do so.”
The other group comprises Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, the United States and Cuba.
The 16th FIFA Under-17 World Cup will be held in Chile from October 17 to November 8.
And, the upcoming Cyprus Cup will be the last opportunity for Canada’s women to compete in a tournament environment before this summer’s World Cup.
Canada will oppose Scotland on March 4, Korea Republic two days later and Italy on March 9.
A three-time winner, Canada has not won the tournament since 2011.
“This Cyprus Cup has a clear outcome and that clear outcome is building that team cohesion similar to what we did in the Four Nations (in China) where we built a depth in the squad,” said head coach, John Herdman. “In Cyprus, it’s about the cohesion in the group of players to go and win football matches. We’ll be only three months out from a World Cup with probably only a few more games after this tournament. We’re starting to define the players’ roles and responsibilities in the team environment and the team culture.”
The national side includes veteran goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, who has represented Canada 105 times in the last 17 years, defender Robyn Gale and midfield player Ashley Lawrence, who is at West Virginia University.
Last year, Canada finished second in Group “A” and had to play in the fifth-place match, where they beat the Republic of Ireland 2-1.