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CONCACAF U-17 Championship loss leaves questions about Canada Soccer youth funding

Isabelle Chukwu and Mia Villalpando Isabelle Chukwu and Mia Villalpando - The Canadian Press

The final score read 2-1 after extra time, a heartbreaking loss to host Mexico at the CONCACAF Women's Under-17 Championship that ended Canada's dream of making it to the FIFA U-17 World Cup.

But plenty more went into the outcome than the 120 minutes of semifinal play Friday at the well-appointed headquarters of the Mexican Football Federation.

An emotional Canada coach Emma Humphries was left pondering the road to Toluca in the immediate aftermath of the defeat, which saw an Annabelle Chukwu goal in the 75th minute pull Canada even at 1-1 only to concede a 101st-minute decider by Vanessa Aguilar.

"I'm devastated for the group," said Humphries, a former New Zealand international. "It's a really, really talented group of young Canadians.

"The last time we beat Mexico at U17 level, these (Canadian) kids were four years old. This is the closest we've come in about 12 years. … The level of investment that Mexico gets is insane. It's probably the best in the world. They've played every top team in the world."

Canada came into Friday's game with a 4-2-1 record against Mexico at the CONCACAF U17 tournament. But the Mexicans have held the upper hand in recent years, winning the 2013 final 4-2 in a penalty shootout and 2-1 in the 2018 semifinal.

Canada's last win over Mexico at the competition was a 1-0 decision in the 2012 semifinal.

Fourteen of the 21 players on Mexico's current roster play in the domestic women's league, Liga MX Femenil, which kicked off in July 2017. The league continues to grow with Nike announcing a three-year partnership last year.

Veterans on the Canadian women's national team warned last year that Canada Soccer's financial problems were taking a toll on the youth program.

Midfielder Quinn, who goes by one name, said the lack of youth investment would cost Canada on the field in the "near future."

Friday's loss to Mexico means Canada will be a spectator at the FIFA U-17 World Cup for the first time. Canada took part in all seven previous editions, placing fourth in 2018.

The Canadian women finished 12th last time out in India in 2022 when they failed to advance out of the group stage at 0-1-2. The 2020 FIFA U-17 competition was cancelled due to the pandemic.

The CONCACAF U-17 championship usually sends three teams to the FIFA U-17 World Cup. But only two qualify from this year's event because the Dominican Republic, a CONCACAF member, is hosting the soccer showcase in October-November.

Canada faces Haiti on Sunday in a third-place match that comes with little more than bragging rights. Haiti lost 7-1 to the defending champion U.S. in the earlier semifinal Friday.

Humphries' team came together in November for a camp in Troia, Portugal, ahead of two matches against Portugal in Lisbon at the Portuguese Football Association's national training centre. It marked the side's first time together since wins in August over Dominica (21-0) and Bermuda (9-0) that qualified it for the CONCACAF championship.

Portugal won the first game 2-0 with Canada taking the second by the same score.

"I'm super-thankful to Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot for funding us (in Portugal), to get that fighting chance. That set us up for this game to try our best," said Humphries. "We just can't compete with that (Mexican) level of investment.

"But what we can compete with is we try our best to innovate. We try our best to absolutely leave everything out on the field. There are so many people working on the ground in Canada that do it for free, to support our U17 team and our U20 team. People that volunteer every day."

Humphries pointed to the Vancouver Whitecaps and CF Montreal, who run development centres in their cities, as well as the Ontario national development centre.

"Despite having a lot less resources, I feel like we do our best to innovate and we're not far off," said Humphries, who is married to Canada women's coach Bev Priestman.

Financial challenges aside, Humphries believes big things will come from her under-17 players.

"We have such a talented group here. They have such bright futures. If there's three (qualification) spots, then it's a different story for this group," she said. "But at the end of the day, that's football too.

"This will sting. This will really hurt them. But I've got no doubt that there's some top, top players here that are going to go on to play for our senior team."


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2024