Canada's U-20 side will officially inaugurate the National Soccer Stadium at Exhibition Place in Toronto on Friday when they take on defending youth world champions Argentina. The 20,000-seat ground, which was built last year and is the new home base for all of the country's football teams and MLS outfit Toronto FC, will play a key role in the hosting of this summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup as site of 12 matches including the already sold-out Canadian opener against Chile on 1 July and the final on 22 July.
In light of monumental ticket sales , it seems tournament organisers got it right when they coined the official slogan for the finals: "It's gonna' be huge." The 16th U-20 World Cup is already assured to be the largest single-sport event in the nation's history and has many up north feeling feverish about football.
"The excitement is unbelievable," Event Director Peter Montopoli recently remarked. "With less than two months to go, this is quickly becoming the most anticipated event on Canadian soil. These games will feature some of the best U-20 players in the world. It's the ticket to have this summer."
Friday's match will give locals their first taste of Team Canada action at Toronto's new ground, located in the heart of the city with a stunning view of the skyline. It will also be a hard test for the hosts of this summer's 24-team global extravaganza. They recently split a series with fellow world finalists Scotland, winning 3-1 in Coquitlam and losing 2-1 in Victoria.
Head coach Dale Mitchell is confident about his team's chances, but knows success at the world level in this summer's showpiece will be no easy ask. With hopes of getting out of the first round as a base goal, the former Canada international is hoping big support from home crowds will spur the side on to great things.
"From tournament to tournament, especially when you are hosting and you have the home crowd behind you, that can be a bit of an advantage, a bit of a boost for the boys, I think hopefully that can make a difference," said the the veteran of the FIFA World Cup in Mexico.
With players like Andrea Lombardo of Toronto FC, Jaime Peters of Ipswich Town and Newcastle starlet David Edgar in the squad for Friday, Mitchell is still trying to blend his Canada 2007 squad with a good balance of foreign-based men and talented North American players like Lombardo of Toronto FC.
Against the best
Facing Chile, Congo and Austria in Group A, the Canadians will be testing themselves against the best team in the history of the U-20 level on Friday in five-time champions Argentina.
Argentine Hugo Tocalli, known as one of the best spotters of young talent in the world, is spoiled for choice. His side for Friday's friendly will not include the country's top U-20 stars but he still says some of the boys in the squad will be fighting for places at the finals.
"The players we are using right now are very good," he said. "Nothing is known yet and we will keep progressing toward this summer. Twelve or 13 of these players we are taking to Canada for this friendly have a very good chance of making the squad for the World Cup."
With the Copa America running at roughly the same time as the Copa America, players like Lionel Messi (top player and scorer from the last U-20 finals in Holland in 2005), Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Agüero, Mauro Zarate and Damian Escudero are not likely to figure in the Canadian finals as they are top players in the selection process for the senior team.
Tocalli, though, has not ruled out the possibility of some of those players packing their bags for Canada once all is done and dusted. "The final decision belongs to Alfio Basile (senior Argentina coach), but if they are not selected for the Copa America, they will be available to me in Canada."
Friday's friendly will be a good way for both sides: humble hosts and five-time champions, to measure their progress en route to the finals in a spectacular new venue.