Canada is no stranger to facing the U.S. at the women's youth soccer level. It's just happening earlier than usual at the CONCACAF Women's Under-20 Championship.
The two North American rivals face off Wednesday in the Dominican Republic in quarterfinal action. With only the semifinal winners qualifying for the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in August, Wednesday's loser is out of luck.
Canada coach Rhian Wilkinson knew a date with the U.S. was likely coming early at the tournament. After failing to qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup two years ago, Canada was seeded third this year and placed in the U.S. side of the draw.
The only way the two rivals were going to avoid an early showdown was if the Americans finished second in their group. Given the U.S. arrived with a 37-2-4 record all-time at this tournament, that was unlikely.
The Americans won their group, outscoring the opposition 24-0, and then blanked Saint Lucia 6-0 to set up the matchup with Canada. The Canadians finished second in their group behind Jamaica, defeating Cuba 6-0 in the round of 16.
"We've known it was going to be a challenge from the beginning," Wilkinson said.
But she believes it is a task the young Canadians are up to.
"Everyone was chosen for this team for their ability to be fit when they're here and to play across multiple positions because it's such a condensed tournament," Wilkinson said. "I'll have the lineup that I think is best to beat the U.S. and I'm confident we're going to be right in the mix. I'm looking forward to it actually."
So are her players, many of whom know their American counterparts from U.S. college ranks.
"They're well aware that they're of equal calibre," Wilkinson said.
Competition is tight this year with just two FIFA U-20 World Cup berths up for grabs in the region instead of the normal three. That's because CONCACAF's Costa Rica and Panama are co-hosting the world championship.
With the possibility of seven games across 16 days in the extreme heat of the Dominican, Wilkinson has used all 20 of her players — some of whom only met each other for the first time at the tournament.
Canada treated the group stage as a training camp of sorts.
"This team is connecting very very quickly and I think their improvement has been quite impressive," Wilkinson said. "It's easy to criticize but I see so many positives. I think it is a very dangerous team. Look past us at your own peril."
The U.S.-Canada winner will face either Jamaica or the Dominican Republic in Friday's semifinal with a berth in the FIFA U-20 Championship on the line.
After playing their first four games at San Cristobal, the Canadians shift to Santo Domingo where the Americans played their group matches. The good news for Wilkinson's team is that the Estadio Olimpico Felix Sanchez in Santo Domingo is closer to the Canadian team hotel, meaning a shorter commute than the 90-minute trip through traffic to San Cristobal's Estadio Panamericano.
UCLA forward Mia Fishel leads the U.S with eight goals at this tournament, one of 10 Americans to score. The U.S. has yet to concede a goal.
University of Memphis forward Tanya Boychuk has four goals for Canada at the tournament.
Canada has qualified for seven of the nine previous FIFA U-20 World Cups, reaching the quarterfinals in 2004 and 2014 and losing to the U.S. in the final of the inaugural 2002 tournament (when it was under-19) on home soil.
The U.S. has qualified for all nine FIFA U-20 Women's World Cups, winning the tournament in 2008 and 2012 in addition to 2002.
The Americans have won five of the nine CONCACAF U-20 championships to date, including four of the last five. The first tournament, in 2002, did not proclaim a winner with Mexico and the U.S. qualifying for the FIFA championship as group winners.
The U.S. has made the championship game in all eight CONCACAF tournaments that staged a final. Last time out in 2018, it lost the final to Mexico in a penalty shootout. Canada failed to qualify in 2018, losing to Mexico in a semifinal penalty shootout and then 1-0 to Haiti in the third-place game.
Canada won the CONCACAF competition in 2004 and 2008 and finished runner-up to the U.S. in 2006, 2012 and 2015. Canada's record at the CONCACAF championship is 29-7-3.
France, Germany, Netherlands, France, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and Spain have already qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, joining co-hosts Costa Rica and Panama. Two teams from each of Africa and South America still have to qualify.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press