For Canadian Under-17 national team head coach Sean Fleming, getting to the World Cup at this age group for the second straight time is a starting point rather than a destination.
Fleming guided his young team - featuring five Whitecaps FC Residency players - to this fall’s 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates with a comeback 4-2 win over Jamaica on Saturday in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF U-17 Championship (all four semifinalists qualify for the World Cup).
But while he’s excited to be making a return trip to the World Cup, Fleming said he’s more thrilled that Canada’s next generation is getting more international exposure at such a young age.
“I think it’s absolutely critical," he told reporters in a conference call on Monday. "I think that this program is really hopefully planting the seed for these kids to play for our senior men’s team. That’s really what the main goal for all of these players should be. I think every international we can get is fantastic.”
The U-17 program has been the lone bright spot in the Canadian men’s program over the past few years. As the senior, U-23 and U-20 programs have all faltered in their various qualification journeys, at the U-17 level, Canada is looking for a return trip to the final in a CONCACAF regional championship. They lost 3-0 in extra time to the United States two years ago.
Success at this age level is certainly good, but Fleming says players need to continue to be challenged and earn their way into first-team squads if they want international results to carry over to the higher levels.
“I think we have to somehow better prepare them so they can go play in MLS because it’s tough for an 18- or 19-year-old,” he said. “We still have to find those good, competitive environments for the kids so that they can continue to develop because they need to be pushed all the time so that they can be developed to the best of their potential.”
No matter the age, however, there’s nothing that helps a player’s resume like an appearance in a World Cup. And in living through the highest-pressure situations in the game, there is no better advertisement for Canada’s developing talent.
“The best diamonds are the ones that can handle the most pressure," Fleming said, "and these kids are some great diamonds, but they need to get pushed further after the World Cup so that they can hopefully evolve to have long careers in football."
Canada now face hosts Panama in the semifinals of the CONCACAF tournament on Wednesday (6 p.m. PT, sportsnet.ca) at Estadio Rommel Fernández in Panama City.