TORONTO - Former star striker Kara Lang played at the Under-20 Women's World Cup on two occasions before devoting her full attention to the Canadian women's senior team.
She still remembers the massive roar of the home crowd when the Canadians walked out on the pitch before 47,784 fans at Commonwealth Stadium in 2002. Lang expects a similar reception for the Canadian team as the host nation at this year's tournament, which begins Tuesday.
"Nothing can compare to that — the level of intensity, the crowd support that you get," Lang said in a recent interview. "I was 15 at the time, the rest of the team was 16, 17, 18-year-olds and to be playing in front of crowds of 50,000 people cheering for you, it's unlike anything else.
"That's what this team is going to experience as well."
Lang's appearance at the inaugural tournament in Edmonton — at that time it was a U-19 event — came shortly after she made her debut with the senior team.
There are several Canadian players who will be in a similar position for the 2014 tournament, which will be played Aug. 5-24 in Edmonton, Moncton, Montreal and Toronto. Midfielder Jessie Fleming has suited up for the senior team before and also played at the U-17 competition.
"It's perfect because we've experienced a big tournament and we know what it's like dealing with not a lot of recovery time and intense matches," she said. "I think that will help."
Canada held a camp in mid-July in Mexico and will open the tournament Tuesday at BMO Field with a Group A game against Ghana. Canada will play Finland on Friday in Toronto before heading to Montreal for an Aug. 12 game against North Korea.
Centre backs Kadeisha Buchanan and Rebecca Quinn, fullback Sura Yekka, midfielder Ashley Lawrence and forward Nichelle Prince are the other Canadian players with senior team experience. Defender Kinley McNicoll will serve as captain and Kailen Sheridan is the No. 1 goalie.
Canada went 1-2-0 at the 2012 tournament and failed to advance out of the group stage. Andrew Olivieri is back as coach and senior team coach John Herdman is serving as high-performance director.
The Canadian program has an eye on the big picture for all youth competitions and this one is no different. Olivieri wants his players to move closer to taking that next step to the senior team and hopefully achieve success along the way.
"Six games at the international level is the most we can get out of this tournament," Olivieri said. "So that's going to take winning a quarter-final and that's going to remain our objective: is win a quarter-final, get into a semi and whether it's a semi, a final, a third-place game, that's just what the system needs right now."
Group B includes the U.S., Germany, China and Brazil. Group C is made up of England, Mexico, Nigeria and South Korea while Group D consists of Costa Rica, France, New Zealand and Paraguay.
Germany and the defending champion Americans have combined to win five of the six previous U-20 tournaments while North Korea won in 2006. All three teams are expected to be strong again this year.
The top two teams from each pool advance to the quarter-finals, which will be shared by the four host cities. Moncton and Montreal will host the semifinals and Montreal will stage the final and third-place match.
The tournament comes a year before Canada hosts the 2015 Women's World Cup.
"For a lot of these players, it's kind of a warmup for them because a number of them will be playing in 2015 next summer with the full women's team," Lang said. "Next summer won't be such a shock to them if they've gone through something like this.
"It can be a bit of a shock when you walk out onto the field ... as the tournament grows, the support grows. By the time we walked out to crowds of 10 and 20,000 people (in 2002), we were floored and then it just grew as the tournament went on. In a number of ways it's great preparation."
Olivieri said his squad will be the youngest U-20 team Canada has ever fielded in the tournament.
"We'll be talented but we will be young," he said. "It's hard to tell how we'll stack up against other teams."
Buchanan, one of the anchors of the Canadian defence, isn't lacking for confidence.
"Our team is capable of dominating the opposition," she said. "Playing in their half and just getting (shots) on net."
Fleming echoed those thoughts.
"I think we're capable of going all the way," she said. "I think it's going to be tough. It's going to be tough for any team to win the tournament. We just have to take it game by game."
Lang said there are always a few surprise results because it can be challenging to track the development of other national youth programs. She expects Olivieri and Herdman will have the players ready and prepared.
"They have really implemented a system and a philosophy of mental toughness," she said. "It really is just based on individual players knowing their roles and focusing on that."
Lang's other U-20 appearance came in Thailand in 2004. She played in two World Cups — in 2003 and 2007 — as well as the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Her eyes still light up when she talks about that magical ride to the final in 2002.
"Playing in an international tournament at home in front of Canadian fans — you can't beat it," she said.
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