01/09/2015 03:02 EST | Updated 03/11/2015 05:59 EDT

Canadian U20 team looks to reach world stage, faces tough CONCACAF competition

Canada Soccer takes pride that, among the 209 FIFA member associations, it ranks in the top five per cent in qualifying for all FIFA World Cup competitions.

That covers all ages and both genders.

But the Canadian men have only made it to the World Cup once (1986) and have not reached the Olympics — essentially an under-23 competition — since 1984.

At the men's under-20 level, Canada was unable to advance out of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2009 and 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cups and failed to win or score a goal when it hosted the 2007 tournament.

Canada looks to step back into the world under-20 spotlight as it opens play Saturday against Haiti at the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship in Jamaica. Four teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean will advance to the 24-country FIFA U-20 World Cup that kicks off May 30 in New Zealand.

Canada's goal is qualification and coach Rob Gale, who knows his talent inside and out, speaks highly of the squad at his disposal.

Canada performed well in a fall European tour, going unbeaten in three games with victories over the U.S and Russia and a tie with an excellent England side.

But just getting out of CONCACAF is tough with heat, hostile fans and poor playing conditions. And as Canada strives to improve, so does its competition.

Haiti, for example, keeps its young players in camp for long stretches.

"We have maybe one or two that are playing first-team football," said Gale. "So compare that to the teams that hopefully we're going to face in New Zealand. The experience level is improving for sure but we want to continue to improve and strive forward with the clubs and get more players in the first team playing regularly.

"Most of our squad have not played a competitive game since November ... They are talented boys but we've still got a long long way to go."

Gale believes Canada is on the right track, however. Canada Soccer now boasts an under-15 team with technical director Tony Fonseca drawing on former Canadian internationals Ante Jazic and Paul Stalteri to help put young talent on a consistent Canadian development path.

MLS teams in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver have vibrant academies and are adding USL PRO teams, which Gale believes will offer young talent more playing time in the future.

Gale has essentially spent three years grooming talent for this under-20 squad and, despite the challenges facing Canada, makes no excuses.

"We're looking forward to testing ourselves." he told a conference call Friday.

He knows tournaments like this will stand the Canadian players in good stead down the line.

Gale's 20-man roster features six players from the Vancouver Whitecaps residency program, two each from Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact and one from FC Edmonton.

Forward Cyle Larin (UConn) could be the top pick in next week's MLS SuperDraft. He has already won three caps for Canada's senior squad.

But Gale did not get all his weapons.

Captain Dylan Carreiro (Dundee) and fellow midfielder Fraser Aird (Rangers) were not released by their clubs, which are not compelled to free up players at the youth level.

Defender Luca Gasparotto, on loan at Airdrieonians from Rangers, will serve as skipper.

"He's an excellent example to the boys on and off the field," said Gale. "A great teammate and leader."

Gale said goalies Marco Carducci (Vancouver Whitecaps) and Nolan Wirth (Oregon State) will both see action.

Playing in Group B, Canada opens against Haiti before taking on two-time defending CONCACAF champion Mexico on Monday, El Salvador on Thursday, Cuba on Jan. 19 and Honduras on Jan. 22.

The tournament opened Friday in Kingston with a Group A tripleheader featuring Aruba versus Panama, the U.S. versus Guatemala and Jamaica versus Trinidad and Tobago.

The group winners advance to the tournament final with a FIFA U-20 World Cup spot secured. The second- and third-place teams in each group will cross over and play each other for the other two World Cup spots.

Canada made it to the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2003, losing to eventual runner-up Spain after extra time. It managed just one tie and five losses over the 2005 and 2007 tournaments.

Austria, Germany, Fiji, Hungary, Myanmar, North Korea, Portugal, Qatar, Serbia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan have already qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand

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