Canada opens its campaign at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup on Thursday against South Korea, kicking off a challenging first-round schedule that also features games against France and Nigeria in Group C.
And the degree of difficulty grows after that at the 16-team tournament in Costa Rica.
The winner of Canada's group takes on the runner-up in Group D, which is made up of defending champion Japan, the three-time champion U.S., Ghana and the Netherlands, in the quarterfinals. The Group C runner-up will face the Group D winner.
Canada coach Cindy Tye know what lies ahead for her young team.
"It's a tough group but we're looking at it as a challenge, and a great experience for the kids," said Tye, a former Canadian international who doubles as coach of the Dalhousie University women's team.
Canada failed to qualify for the 2018 U-20 World Cup in France. And the Canadian women did not get out of the group stage in 2016 in Papua New Guinea.
"We're not underdogs here … The group feels that they're in a very good space right now," said Tye. "We're very ambitious. We would like to podium. And we feel that we're going to take some people by surprise as we go."
Costa Rica was originally slated to co-host the U-20 event in 2020 along with Panama. The tournament was postponed due to the pandemic with Costa Rica taking over as sole host.
Canada has qualified for eight of the 10 editions of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, finishing runner-up in 2002 when a Canadian team featuring a young Christine Sinclair lost to the U.S. in extra time before 47,784 at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium.
That inaugural event was competed at the U-19 level before the tournament switched to U-20 in 2006.
Canada hosted the event in 2014, losing to Germany in the quarterfinals.
France finished fourth, second and third at the last three editions of the FIFA U20 championship and defeated Germany in the final of the 2019 European Women's Under-19 Championship.
Nigeria, runner-up in 2010 and 2014, has advanced to the knockout rounds in seven of its nine trips to the tournament. South Korea was third in 2010 and has made the quarterfinals on two of its four other visits to the championship.
The Canadian women qualified in March when they beat Puerto Rico 2-0 in the third-place game at the CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championship in the Dominican Republic.
The Canadians, who first got together in January, held a camp in Toronto in July and have been in Costa Rica since Aug. 2. They played a pre-tournament friendly against Japan, losing 2-1 with Olivia Smith scoring for Canada.
The Canadians take on South Korea at San Jose's Estadio Nacional before facing France on Sunday at the same venue. They wrap up round-robin play Aug. 17 against Nigeria some 18 kilometres away at the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto in Alajuela.
"I think this group is a great challenge because there's four very different styles of play," said Tye. "For us, it's just maintaining our identity and building on that as young players. Not necessarily a danger but a challenge will be to keep adapting each and every game because of the different styles, which is a really exciting opportunity for the staff and the players."
South Korea and France were among the teams nominated by their confederations from their performance in 2019 tournaments after regional qualifying was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Nigeria defeated Senegal 7-2 on aggregate in a two-game series to join Ghana as African representatives.
The U.S. (2002, '08 and '12), Germany (2004, '10 and '14) and North Korea (2006 and '16) are the only other countries apart from Japan (21-8) to have won the under-20 women's title.
The tournament is a showcase for young talent. While England did not qualify for the tournament in Costa Rica, five members of its recent European champion team were part of England's third-place entry at the 2018 U-20 World Cup in France.
Tye's roster includes Smith, captain Jade Rose and Zoe Burns, who have all won caps at the senior level.
Rose and Smith each have two senior caps while Burns has one. Goalkeeper Anna Karpenko and Nikayla Small, also on the Canadian roster, have been called up by the senior squad but have yet to make an appearance.
"We do have that experience and we have some great young players too," said Tye. "The group has grown more and more connected from our time in January to now."
Smith tied for second in scoring at the CONCACAF championship with eight goals while Burns was tied for second in assists with four.
Tye is one of nine female coaches at the 16-country FIFA tournament.
"It's very exciting. Beyond words, really, coming as a former international player and now representing as a coach, I know I can speak for others here, having the most female coaches here is a big growth," said Tye.
"When you have young females that can see it, they can see them on TV and have this media exposure. Then they can feel it and they can dream it," she added.
There has been just one change to the roster from the CONCACAF tournament, with Wake Forest defender Zara Chavoshi replacing Maya Ladhani, who had club commitments in Europe.
Goalkeepers: Sierra Giorgio, Syracuse (NCAA); Anna Karpenko, Harvard University (NCAA); Coralie Lallier, NDC-CDN Quebec.
Defenders: Vivianne Bessette, South Florida (NCAA); Zara Chavoshi, Wake Forest University (NCAA); Brooklyn Courtnall, USC (NCAA); Annika Leslie, West Virginia (NCAA); Mia Pante, Texas A&M (NCAA); Jade Rose, Harvard University (NCAA); Elisabeth Tse, SMU (NCAA).
Midfielders: Simi Awujo, USC (NCAA); Zoe Burns, USC (NCAA); Keera Melenhorst, University of Pittsburgh (NCAA); Nikayla Small, Wake Forest (NCAA); Olivia Smith, Florida State (NCAA); Sonia Walk, Boston College (NCAA); Holly Ward University of Texas (NCAA)
Forwards: Florianne Jourde, NDC-CDN Quebec; Miya Grant-Clavijo, Brown University (NCAA); Kaila Novak, UCLA (NCAA); Serita Thurton, South Florida (NCAA).
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press