TORONTO - The Canadian under-20 soccer team takes on England on Wednesday, looking to build some momentum ahead of the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship in January when places at the FIFA U-20 World Cup are on the line.
The Canadians play England in Bournemouth before heading to Marbella, Spain, for games against Russia on Nov. 15 and the U.S. on Nov. 18.
Canadian coach Rob Gale only took over the U-20 team in March but knows his squad inside and out. He has coached Canada's under-16 and under-18 teams and served as an assistant to Sean Fleming at the under-17 level, helping that age group qualify for two successive FIFA U-17 World Cups.
Canadian Soccer Association technical director Tony Fonseca essentially put Gale in charge of this squad three years ago.
"We've gone from one camp a year at 16 and 17 to now having seven or eight projects together," Gale said in an interview. "It's been great to see their development into professional footballers and now some of them some senior international footballers, which is fantastic."
Under-20 squad members Samuel Adekugbe, Kianz Froese and Samuel Gasparotto of the Vancouver Whitecaps, Jordan Hamilton and Manny Aparicio of Toronto FC, Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare of the Montreal Impact, Hanson Boakai of FC Edmonton, Michael Petrasso of England's Notts County and Dylan Carreiro, on loan at Arbroath from Dundee FC, have all been invited to senior camps.
National team coach Benito Floro is trying to institute a culture while looking to the future. He is also evaluating talent for the under-23 side he will try to qualify for the Olympics.
While Gale knows his talent, he says there will be competition for places. A third of the squad is still up for grabs, he reckons.
For example, Hamilton — a highly touted striker with Toronto FC — will have to compete for his spot.
"There's no doubt he's a talented boy," Gale said of the 18-year-old currently on loan to a second-tier side in Portugal.
"We'll see how he does. I hope he comes and settles in well with the group," he added. "He can be a danger, there's no doubt about it."
It's been difficult for Gale to summon all his players at once with European-based players like Petrasso, Luca Gasparotto and Fraser Aird (in the Glasgow Rangers system) hard to pry loose.
"We won't actually get the entire squad together until (CONCACAF) qualifying which is an unfortunate circumstance but it is the reality," Gale said.
The 12-team CONCACAF Under-20 Championship in Montego Bay, Jamaica, will send four teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean to the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015, which kicks off May 30.
Canada has been drawn in a pool with Mexico, El Salvador, Cuba, Haiti and Honduras.
Gale sees it as a tough group.
"There will be no easy games, not that there are at international level ... it's going to be a very tight group and I think consistency is going to be the key," he said.
Getting out of CONCACAF will be tough, with Gale acknowledging that the region is often underrated "until you experience it."
Hardscrabble Central American countries can produce mighty motivated players, in Gale's experience. And he points to the recent World Cup in Brazil as proof that CONCACAF teams are threats.
"It's easy to look at countries like a Haiti and a Cuba, countries that are less well-developed, shall we say, in terms of economics and infrastructure. But often that is where you produce great footballers,' Gale said.
"And I think if we have a problem in North America, our kids get too much and it's too easy a lifestyle sometimes. Whereas you see these footballers in these countries and cultures, it's everything to them. And they have that grit, the desire, the determination because it's their way out of their way of life or to a better way of life sometimes.
"I think people need to realize how difficult that is and they're starting to realize ... if you come through the (CONCACAF) test, if you can get out of that then you're ready for the fire after it. Because it really is a stern test of what you're about."
Canada was unable to advance out of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2009 and 2011 FIFA U-20 tournaments and failed to win or score a goal when it hosted the 2007 U-20 FIFA World Cup.
There is plenty of coaching talk in the Gale clan with five members holding UEFA licences. His brother-in-law John Peacock is director of coaching for England's Football Association and coaches the English under-17 side. They were on opposing benches at the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Gale comes from English stock but was born in Zambia where his father was coaching. He also spent time as a child in Kenya and Tanzania but went to England when he reached school age. He grew up outside London.
He now makes his home in Winnipeg.
The English failed to make the world under-20 field, missing out on the final eight-team stage of UEFA European Under-19 Championship in Hungary in July. Austria, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Serbia, and Ukraine will represent Europe in New Zealand next summer.
Still, England is coming off winning the Four Nations Tournament last month with victories over Germany and the host Netherlands and a tie with Turkey.
England coach Aidy Boothroyd's 22-man squad includes 18-year-old striker James Wilson, who already has two goals in six appearances for Manchester United. The English squad also includes players from Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Newcastle, Southampton and Tottenham.
Canada counters with 12 players from domestic clubs, including all three MLS franchises and FC Edmonton of the NASL.
Former Canadian international Ante Jazic will serve as an assistant coach to Gale.
Goalkeepers: Nolan Wirth (Oregon State), Marco Carducci (Vancouver Whitecaps).
Defenders: Samuel Adekugbe (Vancouver Whitecaps), Luca Gasparotto (Airdrieonians, Scotland), Rares Serban (University of British Columbia), Jordan Haynes (Vancouver Whitecaps residency), Alexander Comsia (RC Strasbourg, France), Marko Aleksic (FC Edmonton).
Midfielders: Marco Bustos (Vancouver Whitecaps), Hanson Boakai (FC Edmonton), Louis Beland-Goyette (Montreal Impact), Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare (Montreal Impact), Dylan Carreiro (Arbroath, Scotland), Michael Petrasso (Notts County, England), Manny Aparicio (Toronto FC), Kianz Froese (Vancouver Whitecaps).
Forward: Sadi Jalali (FC Edmonton), Jordan Hamilton (C.D. Trofense, Portugal).
Goalkeepers: Christy Pym (Exeter City), Christian Walton (Brighton & Hove Albion), Joe Wildsmith (Sheffield Wednesday).
Defenders: Dominic Ball (Tottenham Hotspur), Kortney Hause (Gillingham, loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers), Lloyd Jones (Liverpool), Shay Facey (Manchester City), Matt Targett (Southampton), Baily Cargill (AFC Bournemouth).
Midfielders: Paul Digby (Barnsley), John Swift (Rotherham United, loan from Chelsea), Josh Harrop (Manchester United), Harrison Reed (Southampton), Lewis Baker (Chelsea), Matty Grimes (Exeter City), Alex Mowatt (Leeds United).
Forward: Jordon Ibe (Derby County, loan from Liverpool), Josh Murphy (Norwich City), Rolando Aarons (Newcastle United), Kwame Thomas (Derby County), Chuba Akpom (Arsenal), James Wilson (Manchester United).
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter