Young squad a glimpse of Canada's soccer future
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - The sky over the Arizona mountains was an eye-pleasing mauve as the sun set on Canada's soccer practice.
The Canadian team bus headed off into the night from a sprawling suburban sportsplex, carrying a new generation of talent that is the hope for the future of the men's program after yet another failed World Cup qualifying campaign.
Canada is being conveyed by the Ryan's Express bus line on this trip. But interim coach Colin Miller has another name in mind.
"It's like the Partridge Family school bus headed off to training at times," said Miller. "We have a chuckle at that."
The analogy would probably be lost on his squad. Eleven of the 22 players summoned for this camp were born in the 1990s.
For Miller and his makeshift coaching staff, it's a time to teach under the Arizona sun.
On Tuesday afternoon, there was patience to a point. Assistant coaches forgave errors until there was one sloppy drill too many.
"This is international level football," bellowed Miller, adding an F-Bomb for good measure.
Tuesday's message was about quality and concentration. The young Canadians are clearly a work in progress.
"We've had four training sessions now. There's an unbelievable amount of work to cover as you would imagine within four days, roughly five days," Miller said in his team's defence. "You're trying to do four of five months work in that period of time and try and educate the players to how you want them to play."
Canada has not turned its back on its older players. Many are starting MLS pre-season or are unable or unwilling to leave European teams.
But the Canadian Soccer Association is using this camp — which sets up friendlies against Denmark in Tucson on Saturday and against the U.S. in Houston next Tuesday — to audition talent for this summer's Gold Cup and beyond.
The CSA says, with an average age of just under 25, it's the youngest Canadian team since May 2006. Eight played for Canada's under-23 team at the CONCACAF championship last year.
Only four players from the 22-man squad saw game action in Canada's recent failed World Cup qualifying campaign: midfielders Dwayne De Rosario and Nik Ledgerwood, goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld and striker Tosaint Ricketts.
An injured De Rosario missed the 8-1 debacle in Honduras that ended Canada's bid to move to the final round of regional qualifying. Dejan Jakovic and Terry Dunfield were on the bench but did not play. Ashtone Morgan was a substitute in earlier matches.
Canada dressed 20 players during the most recent six-game round of World Cup qualifying who do not figure in this squad.
De Rosario and Hirschfeld are the greybeards of the team at age 34 and account for more than 60 per cent of the squad's 193 senior caps — De Rosario has 71, while Hirschfeld has 45.
With so many new faces, there are introductions to be made and Miller is delighted at the way senior players like Dunfield and De Rosario have tried to engage the youngsters.
A players' dinner was scheduled for Tuesday, with another get-together planned for the entire touring party Wednesday.
That gathering is to elicit information about each player, from marital status to off-the-field interests.
"We're trying to bring a group from all over the place together as much as we possibly can," said Miller.
"The attitude has been fantastic," he added. "Not only from the players but from the staff, everyone has been pulling in the same direction."
While Miller has had to play bad cop at times, he doesn't see any of the failure as for lack of trying. Usually it's due to players getting carried away and trying to do things too fast "instead of 'slow down and think a little bit about what we're trying to achieve.' When they've done that, you can see the quality is there."