Canada named a youthful squad for its men's Olympic soccer qualifying campaign Tuesday with one eye on this summer's London Games and the other on the future.
The eight-team under-23 tournament is open to players born in 1989 but Canadian coach Tony Fonseca's 20-man roster includes two 17-years-old and just four players born in '89.
He says it was conscious decision to go young.
"When we look across the board and we look at the players, I felt this time around it's in our best interests to look at the future," Fonseca said on a conference call. "We have lacked a lot of experience in the past. It might sound a little bit not fair at this point in time but to me I've got the [players] that I think have the talent and the potential to move forward.
"It was a question of talent and giving the best options to this group to be successful."
The Canadians open Group A play Thursday against El Salvador in Nashville, Tenn., with games against the heavily favoured U.S. and Cuba still to come over a gruelling five-day stretch.
Only two teams from the CONCACAF region, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean, will move on to London. In order to qualify, the Canadians have to make the final.
Canada hasn't qualified in men's soccer at the Olympics since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
The four players born in 1989 are former Toronto FC and San Jose Earthquakes defender Nana Attakora, midfielder Shaun Saiko (FC Edmonton) and strikers Marcus Haber (St. Johnstone, Scotland) and Carl Haworth (Montreal Impact).
Also on the team are two members of Toronto FC: defender-midfielder Matt Stinson and defender Doneil Henry.
Attakora (currently unattached), Haber, striker Randy Edwini-Bonsu (Eintracht Braunsweig, Germany) and 17-year-old midfielder Samuel Piette (FC Metz, France) have spent time with the senior national team.
Defenders Ashton Morgan of Toronto FC and Adam Straith of Energie Cottbus were not made available by their clubs because the qualifying tournament does not fall under FIFA rules forcing teams to release players.
"We are happy at this stage to have the players that we have, there's a couple others missing but I completely understand the clubs and why they're not releasing players because they're not obligated to," Fonseca said.
Familiar with the talent
But he believes young players benefit more from international games.
"An international game is worth four league games and to me that's a good enough reason to release players," he said. "It gives them a lot more experience that they need to be a top athlete.
"The level of concentration, the speed of the game, the immediate objectives that you have to play for. The intensity is so high that obviously the game is tremendous."
Fonseca, a former under-20 coach, is familiar with the talent he has assembled, but a pre-tournament camp in Florida has been his only time with the team since March 2011.
Still he's convinced Canada can put in a good showing.
"One thing I'm very confident about with this team is their will to go and play," Fonseca said. "The qualities they have shown, I think if we bring our best to the field, we're going to able to compete with anyone."
The Canadian team has nine players born in 1990, four players born in 1992, one born in 1993 plus the two born in 1994: Piette and fellow 17-year-old midfielder Bryce Alderson (Vancouver Whitecaps).
Fonseca is especially high on Alderson, having followed him since before the under-17 World Cup last summer.
"His qualities are very distinct and he's a player who's very comfortable on the ball — can play fast, can play slow, left-footed, a lot of imagination and I see a lot of upside," Fonseca said. "For this team to have those elements in the team — very young, very talented, tons of potential — the future looks very bright for us."
Group B, based in Carson, Calif., features Honduras, Mexico, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. A second-place finish for Canada in Group A would set up a semifinal, with a berth at the Olympics on the line, against the winner of Group B on March 31 in Kansas City.
Canada faces an opponent in El Salvador on Thursday that the team knows little about.
"It's going to be a competitive team," Fonseca said. "They have players that have been together for a little longer than us but at the end of the day every game is going to be a big challenge — no weak teams, especially in our group."