VANCOUVER - As Canada's under-17 men's soccer team prepared for a match that will make or break its World Cup aspirations, coach Sean Fleming did his best to ease the pressure on his players.
"It is probably the biggest game of their careers," Fleming said Friday on a conference call as his team prepared for Saturday's World Cup qualifying game against Jamaica in Panama. "(But) we don't focus on the result. We know what happens here, win or lose. We have to focus on our own performance and make sure that we are preparing as best as we possibly can.
"That'll help ease their nerves, because they have been so well prepared. The kids have been focused on and off the pitch to make sure that they're ready to go."
With a victory in the CONCACAF zone quarter-final game, Canada can secure one of the North American, Central American and Caribbean zone's four berths in the Under-17 World Cup to be played in the United Arab Emirates in October.
But the game is important for a few other long-term reasons. While the women's program, led by captain Christine Sinclair, is flourishing after its bronze medal win at the 2012 London Olympics, the senior men's program is rebuilding, if not reeling, in wake of a humiliating 8-1 loss to Honduras in World Cup qualifying play last fall.
Fleming hopes a good result in the heat in Panama can provide a boost to the beleaguered senior men's program, which is still searching for a new head coach after Stephen Hart resigned following the loss to Honduras.
"It's a big difference (between the under-17 and senior men's level), of course," said Fleming. "But I really feel that the under 17s and under 20s, we all have our piece in the development of the program."
Fleming's crew qualified for the quarter-final by earning a 1-1 tie with Costa Rica on Thursday in round-robin action. Hanson Boakai of Edmonton scored for Canada as it came back to earn the draw and finish first in its group with a 1-0-1 record.
Fleming is expecting big things from Boakai again as the Canadians, while playing in extreme heat, attempt to deal with a quick, athletic and physical Jamaican side on "old turf" that can distort bounces.
"I'm not overly surprised (Boakai scored against Costa Rica), because he's that kind of boy where he just rises to the occasions, and I hope that's again the case (Saturday)," said Fleming.
The Canadian coach also has high hopes for goalkeeper Marco Carducci of Calgary, a player Fleming says possesses sound physical, technical and tactical qualities as well as quietly competent leadership skills.
"But like (with) most young players, there's no crystal ball to what'll happen," said Fleming. "But what I see of him now, I think he could have a long time in the game.
"He's the captain of this squad, and he leads by his example. He's not a real rah-rah kind of captain. He's just a natural kid who goes out and works hard every day, every meeting — so concentrated, so focused — and he's just a real great leader among the group."
Carducci, a member of the Vancouver Whitecaps Academy, is one of several players tied to Canada's Major League Soccer squads. The under-17 team now gets most of its players via MLS channels and FC Edmonton, which plays in the lower-tier North American Soccer League.
Fleming said the chance to train daily in a professional environment and receive high-level coaching is providing a large benefit to his players — and the squad.
"It's incredibly important, because we've had some limited times together here as a national team group," said Fleming.
The chance to wear the Canadian Maple Leaf more often is also paying dividends.
"The kids take on the (role) of representing their country very seriously, and they're very patriotic and very committed to their country," said Fleming.
"And, I think, the more they do play for their country, the easier it gets as well to be able to be themselves and concentrate on their performance and, maybe, not have that (pressure of playing for Canada) distract them from their performance."
While the Canadian program can benefit from links to MLS talent, the pro teams are also in position to gain. Vancouver Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie said his club wants to help Canadian soccer.
But he also hopes the loaning of players to Canadian youth teams will lead to more youngsters starting in an MLS game — as 20-year-old midfielder Russell Teibert of Niagara Falls, Ont., who has represented Canada numerous times, did last week against the San Jose Earthquakes.
"(Playing for the Canadian under-17 team) gives them great experience, and then, hopefully, they'll bring that experience back here and it'll help them as they develop in our program," said Rennie.