Opportunity knocks

ROB LONGLEY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:37 AM ET

In the world's more traditionally soccer-crazed countries, the burden of expectation could be enough to bring even the best young men down. But the group of mostly teenage Canadians looking to make a huge impact in their homeland over the next three weeks don't see it that way.

The players on coach Dale Mitchell's home side see opportunity rather than oppression; a chance to sell the game like it has never been sold before domestically.

By the end of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, which kicks off for the Canadians this sunday against Chile at Toronto's BMO Field, speedster Jaime Peters of Pickering, Ont., may be a household name. David Edgar of Kitchener, Ont., already an established pro in England, may get Don Cherry's attention for the hockey mentality he brings to the pitch. Andrea Lombardo, already getting known for his work with Toronto FC of the MLS, could become a hero in the bustling Italian neighbourhoods of his native city.

And if the squad advances out of group play, as it did in this event four years ago, soccer and the Maple Leaf could go together like never before.

"This is a great opportunity for us and a great opportunity for the sport here," Team Canada goalkeeper and Edmonton native Asmir Begovic said in an interview. "Most of us can't wait to show the country what we are capable of. It's a big stage for our sport."

Drawn into Group A, one of six four-team divisions in the FIFA-run event, the Canadian team opens in Toronto before shifting to Edmonton for its next two contests.

The scheduling allows for what organizers hope will be a massive Canada Day celebration at BMO Field, where the kickoff has long been sold out. Once the team makes a splash in Toronto, it will be off to Edmonton, a city that has long shown support for all manner of Canadian soccer teams. Mitchell, who will take over the senior men's side after his work in the U-20 event is complete, is guardedly optimistic at his team's chances.

The squad is deep with players who have experience in the event and during the past year the team has played tough against world powers such as Brazil, Argentina and the Czech Republic.

But these aren't friendlies, and playing against countries where the soccer infrastructure is deep-rooted in the culture is a serious challenge faced by any Canadian international side.

"We always have to be realistic when we set goals," Mitchell said in an interview. "Only two teams in our history have come out of the group stage.

"But considering we've had good preparation and we're playing at home, we are aiming to advance. If we got to the last eight like the 2003 team, I think that would be a great performance."

Adding to the challenge for the Canadian coach is the diversity of style his team will face in its opposition. Teams converging from all corners of the globe is the inherent appeal of any World Cup, and this event is no different.

"Sure it's difficult having teams from all over the world, but we have to concentrate on what we do," Toronto native and Team Canada midfielder Will Johnson said. "That's what makes it a World Cup. We need to do what we have to do to win games and not worry about the rest."

By opening against Chile, the Canadians will get a taste of the South American style, fast-paced and dangerous as it generally is.

For a little European flair, Austria is up next, providing a more technical approach. Not often considered among the best in Europe, let alone the world, the Austrians are improving rapidly at the youth level and will be a stout test.

The Canadians then wrap up group play with the second of its two games in Edmonton when they face Congo on July 7.

"I don't think you would look at our group and say it's drop-dead difficult," Mitchell said. "But every team in it could give us a problem. I look at it that (since) we're hosting, if we don't get out of our group, there will be disappointment. That's the message we'll pass on to our players -- there's a little expectation there and that is a good thing."

One of many good things that could come out of the biggest soccer show to sweep the country.


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