Modest goals, high hopes for Canada
© AFP

Canada won’t be up among the list of favourites to take out the FIFA U-17 World Cup crown later this year, but coach Sean Fleming hopes he can continue to keep his youngsters on an upward trajectory. “Our aim, and my aim, is to put in three good, solid performances,” the 45-year-old youth coach told FIFA.com. “And we’ll just see if the results go our way.”

Fleming coached the Canadians at the FIFA U-17 World Cup two years ago in Mexico, and while his side failed to progress beyond the group stage, modest goals were achieved. “We’d never earned a point at a U-17 World Cup before then,” he said, noting the two historic draws his side picked up in Mexico, against England and African upstarts Rwanda. The Canadians were never played off the park on Mexican soil, either. “Even against Uruguay [who beat Canada 3-0 and went on to the final of the tournament], we were never in over our heads, and what our kids did was amazing,” added the boss, who has been with the national team set-up since 2003.

With experience under his belt, the Scottish-born Fleming is under no illusions about the quality of opposition he is likely to face in UAE. “Most of our guys come from the Major League Soccer (MLS) development academies, but some of them are still playing only for their local youth teams,” said Fleming, expecting leadership and production from the likes of midfield standout Hanson Boakai and talented goalkeeper Marco Carducci. “For them, it’s a great opportunity to play against the best in the world at this age level.

Our aim, and my aim, is to put in three good, solid performances.
Canada coach Sean Fleming

“Last time out [at Mexico 2011], when we played England, Raheem Sterling was in the team,” he said, pointing to the Liverpool winger as an example of the world-class quality to be found at the U-17 level. “It’s a big step up from the CONCACAF qualifiers.”

A humble man, trying to manage expectations for his young players, Fleming will nonetheless be heartened by the performances his team put in at the regional qualifying tournament in Panama earlier this year. “We have some nice attacking options,” he said, likely referring to free-scoring Andrew Gordon and Jordan Hamilton, who were a handful for defenders in the CONCACAF qualifiers. “But mostly we showed that we have great resilience as a team. We went behind a few times,” he added, a nod to the game against Honduras where they fell behind twice before pulling back to draw. “But we had the strength and character to turn it around.”

Canada is a country known more for its devotion to ice hockey than football, but Fleming is right on the front lines of youth development with an important job to do. He knows how nice it would be to reach the knockout stages of a World Cup with his young charges, but the big picture looms much larger for him. “At this age, you can’t put too much focus on the results,” he said. “If you do, you’re going to be in trouble," said Fleming, who is planning two residency camps with his team in August and September. “We have to remember how young these kids are and the fact that most of the players from the other teams already have professional experience.

“My job is to make sure that I produce players who have a chance to move up to the next level of the Canadian national team, and hopefully to move on to full professional careers,” said the measured coach as the interview wound down. “But people here in Canada are starting to take notice of the team, too,” he added, perking up. “With our senior men out of qualifying and the U-20’s not reaching the World Cup in Turkey, it’s up to us to get the job done. We’re getting all the support now; the emails are pouring in.”