Much was expected of Canada at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Jamaica.
The young Canadian soccer team had performed well on a pre-tournament tour of Europe, returning home unbeaten against quality opposition. The squad had never lost two games in a row.
And while coach Rob Gale's team was denied two of its top weapons — midfielders Dylan Carreiro of Dundee and Fraser Aird of Glasgow Rangers — when their Scottish teams refused to release them for the tournament, there was good depth.
Teenage striker Cyle Larin went No. 1 in the MLS SuperDraft during the tournament. Ten players on the roster were on the books of Canadian MLS clubs, with several having already made their first-team debut.
Gale had faith in his squad, having worked with many of them for the last three years. But he knew that not many had played much competitive soccer in the leadup to the CONCACAF event. And five games in 12 days would be a big ask in the heat, humidity and uneven pitch in Montego Bay.
Plus Canada had not taken part in the world under-20 championship since it hosted the event in 2007, exiting without scoring a goal or registering a point. And rival teams were making strides in CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Despite a good start, the tournament quickly went south. The Canadians were eliminated from contention Monday when they lost 2-1 to Cuba and Honduras beat Haiti 3-2.
"All our kind of worst fears about what potentially could happen or affect the players have come to fruition, unfortunately ... It's been a poor display of who we are as a group," said Gale.
"Where these boys have been fantastic in the past in tournament football, for any number of reasons and the boys are struggling themselves to put their finger on it, this week, at this moment of time, they didn't have the energy and the resolve and that character to get themselves out of moments of a game that would turn the course," he added.
Canada opened on a positive note, downing Haiti 3-1. A 2-0 loss to two-time defending champion Mexico was perhaps not unexpected.
A 3-2 loss to El Salvador on a stoppage-time goal was a dagger through the heart. Then the bottom fell out with the loss to Cuba, with Canada conceding the opening goal on a flubbed clearance. When Honduras beat Haiti later that day, Canada's dream of reaching the U20 World Cup were shot.
Canada (1-4-0) wrapped up play Thursday with a 3-2 loss to Honduras.
Panama and Mexico topped their groups to reach the final and automatically qualify for FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand this summer. The second- and third-place teams in each pool will play off to see which two teams join them.
For Gale and his staff, it's time to review and reconsider. Their job is long-term development and this tournament, however painful, has been a learning step for their young players.
The good news for Gale is that his players responded in the second half of games.
For Gale, Thursday's finale outing was "about sheer effort and pride, that has been lacking in some individuals and also as a collective, at times, when the going got tough in the conditions, the heat and everything else."
"Obviously they're down and they're disappointed that they haven't represented themselves as they would have wanted. But you're as good as your next game and in football you have to get back on the horse. And if they want to make a career out of it, they're going to have many many difficult moments and it's how you respond."
Gale was encouraged by the opening win over Haiti. He knew the margin of victory could have been more had his group retained its focus but he saw it as a lesson learned.
Mexico was next, the toughest game on the schedule. The Mexicans were well-rested after a 9-1 romp over Cuba.
"We refreshed the pack but unfortunately a couple of players had just tough tough days at the office," said Gale. "To be fair to the boys, they dug in again. The second half we were much much better."
Down 1-0, they had chances to tie it up but were punished on a late counter-attack.
Mentally, the team was in good spirits going into the El Salvador game. There had been positives against Mexico.
But extreme heat took its toll on a Canadian team inexperienced at this level and in the conditions. Watching from the sidelines, Gale could see his team stray from its game plan just minutes into the contest.
"It becomes not about football then, it's about digging in — the heart and desire to work you way through it."
Down 1-0 and 2-1, the Canadians rallied to tie the game, only to fall victim to a 94th-minute goal off a set kick.
"It was just a mental lapse," said Gale. "Very disappointing ... But with a young group of players, that happens in football."
Against Cuba, an "unfortunate individual error" led to a fifth-minute goal and the Canadians were behind the eight-ball again.
Down 2-0 at the half, the Canadians cut the lead to 2-1 and had chances to score while the Cubans played a delaying game that descended into farce. "The stretcher comes on seven times," Gale said with disgust.
"Unfortunately that's the reality of CONCACAF," he added. "Any time you give a team oxygen or life, where they're ahead, they can wind it down and it can cost you."
Under that extra pressure, players started second-guessing themselves, said Gale.
"Finding the character and heart when the going got tough just deserted us here. And that's tournament football. It can happen."
This is the first cycle of players Gale has had since under-16. Now the plan is to grow a squad from the under-14 level.
Jamaica is a valuable, if painful, lesson. "There's no immediate and short-term fix," said Gale.
The young Canadians are talented but lack experience under pressure, the coach says.
Missing Aird and Carreiro, his longtime captain, did not help.
"If there was one thing that we needed a little more of at this tournament, it was character," said Gale.
He notes with frustration that Carreiro had not played a minute at Dundee during the tournament.
"I think that's disgraceful for a coach to hold a player back from international football and the experience and to not play him at all."
Aird played sparingly at his club during the tournament.
Still, Gale says there are no excuses for what happened in Jamaica.
"We haven't performed and adapted as well as other countries in key moments of key games. And that's been the difference."
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