TORONTO - Defender Doneil Henry and midfielder Samuel Piette, who have both spent time with the full national team, will lead the Canada under-20 squad at the CONCACAF championship in Puebla, Mexico, later this month.
Coach Nick Dasovic has named a preliminary 23-man roster, from which 20 will chosen for the tournament which runs Feb. 18 to March 3.
"It's a real interesting group," Dasovic said of his players. "It's one of the most mature groups that I've been involved with at any level for a long time. So that part of it is quite impressive."
Canada has been drawn in a group with Cuba and Nicaragua at the 12-team championship, which runs from Feb. 18 to March 3 in Puebla, Mexico.
Some see it as a favourable draw but Dasovic says the other teams in his group have been under-rated.
To qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey June 21-July 13, Dasovic's team will have to reach the semifinals of the CONCACAF tournament which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
"We are confident going into it, but as well as being confident we are very aware that things can happen very quickly," Dasovic said in an interview. "It is a very very tough tournament."
Group A features the U.S., Costa Rica and Haiti. Group C is made up of Jamaica, Panama and Puerto Rico against each other while Group D comprises defending champion Mexico, El Salvador and Curacao.
The top two in each group advance to the all-important quarter-finals. Canada, drawn in Group B, will be looking to win its pool and thus avoid the Group A winner — likely the U.S.
"Our goal is to get though to that quarter-final game," said Dasovic. "And if it's first (in our group) fantastic, if it's second, we'll deal with it."
Costa Rica, a team Canada beat in November, could be a quarter-final opponent.
The Central Americans reached the round of 16 at the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia and have qualified for the last three tournaments.
Costa Rica was fourth at the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt.
Other familiar names on the Canadian roster include goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau of the Montreal Impact and midfielders Bryce Alderson of the Vancouver Whitecaps and Keven Aleman, who is in Spanish side Real Valladolid's youth system.
Dasovic will meet up with his players on Feb. 12 for a pre-camp in Mexico City to adjust to the altitude, before heading to Puebla.
Canada last appeared in the U-20 World Cup when it hosted the event in 2007. The Canadians exited after the first round having failed to win or score a goal.
"Things are improving because of the (MLS) academies," Dasovic said of Canadian talent at this age group. "But the next step is the kids need to play at a professional level, which is becoming more difficult in Canada in MLS as you can see with the lack of playing time that a young player receives in MLS in the first time. Having said that we do have a number of players in Europe, which does help.
"But you know, as we're getting better, people have to understand so other countries are getting better."
He pointed to South America, where Argentina and Brazil failed to even make the final round of qualifying. Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Uruguay will represent the region.
"All the countries are getting better. You can't take anybody for granted."
Dasovic also pointed to the infrastructure of Central American teams like Costa Rica, whose players meet up every month. "So they're becoming one unit," he said.
In 2003, when Dasovic was an assistant to Dale Mitchell, Canada had some five starters from the NCAA when it made it to the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 tournament, he noted.
The U.S. and Mexico are the CONCACAF heavyweights in this age group.
The Mexicans have made 12 FIFA U-20 World Cup appearances and have won 11 CONCACAF crowns. The Americans are looking for their 13th appearance at the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Canada Under-20 Squad
Goalkeepers: Maxime Crepeau, Montreal Impact; Richard Gomes, Sport Clube de Mirandela (Portugal).
Defenders: Jon Dollery, Crawley Town FC (England); Doneil Henry, Toronto FC; Manjrekar James, PMFC-MATIAS (Hungary); Marco Lapenna, Erzgebirge Aue (Germany); Jordan Murrell, Syracuse University; Daniel Stanese, FC Nuernberg (Germany); Allan Zebie, FC Edmonton.
Midfielders: Bryce Alderson, Vancouver Whitecaps; Keven Aleman, Real Valladolid (Spain); Dylan Carreiro, Queens Park Rangers (England); Yassin Essa, Vancouver Whitecaps; Mauro Eustaquio, Sporting Clube de Pombal (Portugal); Ben Fisk, Vancouver Whitecaps; Ben McKendry, Vancouver Whitecaps; Zach Messoudi, Montreal Impact; Michael Petrasso, Queens Park Rangers (England); Samuel Piette, Fortuna Dusseldorf (Germany); Alessandro Riggi, Atletico Reguengos (Portugal)
Forwards: Caleb Clarke, Vancouver Whitecaps; Anthony Jackson-Hamel, Montreal Impact; Stefan Vukovic, unaffiliated.
Head Coach: Nick Dasovic
Assistant Coach: Phillip Dos Santos
Goalkeeping Coach: Giuseppe Marino
Manager: Les Meszaros