Canuck juniors strive for balance

Soccer fever is spreading up north in Canada, a country not typically associated with the beautiful game with only one senior FIFA World Cup™ appearance to its name. But optimism is rising among fans in the country with two top-tier professional sides from the country lining up in Major League Soccer namely Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC. And with Montreal Impact getting set for their debut season next year, success at international level may soon follow.

“The landscape of soccer is changing in Canada,” said U-17 coach Sean Fleming, who is hoping to ride the wave of interest in the ice hockey-mad North American nation to glory at the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico. “A lot of our players are now in the academy system of the professional clubs and there are more options for our young players to get top-quality experience week-in, week-out.

“These kids are a part of a cycle now and working toward something, a real future in the game,” Fleming added to FIFA.com.

The 45-year-old, Scotland-born coach has been involved in the Canadian youth set-up since 2003, and the CONCACAF qualifying tournament earlier this year was his greatest moment so far. “It was extremely encouraging,” the coach said of the competition in Jamaica, where his team finished second behind southern rivals USA. “What was most encouraging was our ability to keep clean sheets.”

We will judge success by how we play football. We want to play good football and show it to the world.
Canada U-17 coach Sean Fleming

The comment seems something of an understatement. The Canadians were nothing short of a defensive colossus in Montego Bay, going 462 minutes without conceding a goal. “The first one we conceded was in extra time of the final against the States, and it was a stunner – it took a 35-yard screamer for us to finally concede.”

In the end, the Americans managed to score two more and win 3-0, but the fans in the sun-soaked stadium were backing the underdog Canucks the whole way on final day. “We weren’t just slamming the door shut and playing defensive football,” insisted Fleming, who will lead his side to a first appearance at a FIFA U-17 World Cup in 16 years this June in Mexico. “We played some attractive stuff going forward too, and the fans responded to that. We tried to play football the right way,” he added, dismissing the notion that players from Canada rely over-much on grit and determination.

The coach is hoping to keep up the new-found form in Mexico, but he knows that the heat, altitude and high level of competition may not be cooperative in Canada’s hunt for silverware. “We’ll have to find a balance in Mexico,” said Fleming, who recently saw his side beaten twice by Mexico in a two-game friendly series. “We’ll need to work better at keeping the ball and finding the right moments to break forward, the right times to sit back and keep possession. It’s a tricky balance.”

The team is led by captain Keven Aleman of Toronto FC’s academy, who Fleming reluctantly points to as a stand-out in a group he describes as “a great team,” rather than great individual talents. The side will have one more training camp in the sunny US state of Florida before jetting down south to Mexico, where the side will hope to improve on their latest three-and-out performance at Ecuador 1995. “We will judge success by how we play football,” the coach concluded, unwilling to be drawn into a debate about results and hope for a first FIFA crown in the nation’s history. “We want to play good football and show it to the world.”