Here's the pitch

SCOTT ZERR -- Edmonton Sum

, Last Updated: 2:54 PM ET

When most local lads hit 16, their primary focus is on landing themselves the ultimate symbol of teenage freedom. But Shaun Saiko and Jaswinder Gill have a much larger ambition in mind than mastering the skills it takes to acquire a driver's licence.

Each has been offered a scholarship to the academy programs of English Premier teams - Saiko with Middlesbrough and Gill with Charlton Athletic.

The Edmonton Juventus products must both make up their minds after turning 16 whether or not to make the huge move in the middle of their high school tenures.

THERE'S A BIT OF NERVES

"I want to do it, but there's a bit of nerves," said Saiko, who spent last weekend in Ottawa with the Canadian under-17 team in a two-game series against Scotland. "It's going to be hard to leave all my family and go to another place that I don't really know about. But it would be good to play with all the better players.

''There's not much opportunity here with no pro league and with all the better players overseas, it's kind of my only option."

The scholarships are for two years plus an option year and when the players hit 18, they are either signed by the senior side or released.

The 15-year-old midfielder first garnered the attention of the Middlesbrough staff when his Edmonton squad went to England last summer under the guidance of Len Vickery, the University of Alberta Golden Bears coach.

Gill put an initial offer from Charlton on hold so he could fulfil his obligations to the national U-17s, who face the U.S. today in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and then go up against Guatemala twice next week. He expects there to be some watchful Charlton eyes when he plays between the pipes during Canada's contests.

KEEP WORKING HARD

"I just have to keep working hard in practice all the time," said Gill. "I'll talk things over with them when I come back and if (the offer) is still there, I'll make up my mind."

About the same time that Gill is making up his mind on the scholarship, another Edmonton product will be facing a major decision of his own. Asmir Begovic has done his time in the academy and youth programs and it'll soon be time to step up to the next challenge. The 18-year-old 'keeper is in line for a multi-year contract offer from Portsmouth that would initially land him about 450 pounds per week ($950 Cdn). More important than the money is the chance to move up with the Premier side.

"I've been training with the reserves and with the first team more. I've been getting better and getting more opportunities," said Begovic from Germany, where he is in camp with the Canadian under-20 squad.

FACING CHINA

The Canucks began a three-game exhibition series yesterday with the first of two tests against China.

"My first season here was pretty difficult, having to play at a high level all the time. I had to stay focused and that's become easier now."

But before that deal gets done, the six-foot-five stopper would love to play a key role in helping Canada's climb in the youth ranks.

Begovic posted two shutouts in CONCACAF qualifying back in January and will be in the mix along with Glasgow Rangers' Robert Giacomi and college standout Joshua Wagenaar when the World Youth Championship begins June 12 in the Netherlands.

"I'd like to get as much experience as I can with the under-20 team and my club, and eventually get to the first team and the Canadian national team," said Begovic, one of a handful of current youth team members who are eligible to play at the worlds again in 2007 when Canada plays host.

"I was the backup for qualifying but I want to be playing as much as possible. I'll be disappointed if I'm not playing, but if not, then I'll deal with it."

Canada's U-20 coach Dale Mitchell will put all three of his 'keepers through the paces along with another of Edmonton's blossoming talents, defender Simon Kassaye.

It hasn't been smooth sailing for Kassaye for the past year as he remains without a club team following the collapse of his hometown Aviators.

"If he were to be without a team for a while, in the long run, it would hurt him so it would be in his best interest to get into a good college program or into a pro situation," said Mitchell.

Mitchell has come away impressed by the young players who are coming up in the Canadian ranks, many of whom will be part of the national team program for years and garnering attention from several teams overseas.

SEEING THE RESULTS NOW

"There's no question with our developmental program we are starting to see the results at the under-20 level," said Mitchell.

"The under-17s have an important qualifier next month and it would be great if they were to be successful and get to the championship."

And in addition to Gill, Edmonton's soccer community will be well-represented when the juniors play Haiti, Honduras and Mexico in the last of the CONCACAF qualifiers for a spot at the U-17 worlds in Peru come September.

Joining Gill will be Curtis Ridley, Harman Raich and Mario Panizzon, along with coach Sean Fleming, who is in charge of the Canadian Soccer Association prairie training centre.


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