Benfica's Jan Vertonghen, right, vies for the ball with Moreirense's Steven Vitoria during the Portuguese League soccer match between Benfica and Moreirense at the Luz stadium in Lisbon, on September 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Armando Franca

Veteran Steven Vitoria marvels at Canada’s youth for its talent and work ethic

Veteran Steven Vitoria marvels at Canada’s youth for its talent and work ethic

At 34, centre back Steven Vitoria is the greybeard of the Canadian soccer team as it prepares for World Cup qualifying matches against Aruba and Suriname.

He is surrounded by youth.

Twelve members of John Herdman’s original 24-man roster are 24 or younger. And eight of the 11-man taxi squad called in to join them for training this week in Florida are 22 or younger.

Vitoria likes what he sees.

“You know it’s fantastic. But what’s even more fantastic is that they’re on our side,” he told a virtual news conference Thursday. “Fantastic players. Fantastic future ahead of them. But we’re also focused on the moment, on the present.

“What I admire seeing with these young kids is they have all the quality, they know that. But their work ethic, it’s fantastic. And that’s why they are where they are. And the group feeds off that. It’s a great place where we are, but we don’t want to stop here. We want to continue growing. It’s fantastic to be a part of and it’s fantastic to watch as well.”

The Canada roster includes young stars like 20-year-old fullback Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich) and 21-year-old forward Jonathan David (Lille), who are coming off league titles in Germany and France.

The Canadian men are midway through the first round of qualifying in CONCACAF, a stretch that features games against countries known more for being holiday destinations than soccer powers.

Canada, currently ranked 70th in the world, defeated No. 168 Bermuda 5-1 and the 194th-ranked Cayman Islands in a record 11-0 romp in late March.

Next up is No. 205 Aruba, on Saturday in Bradenton, Fla., and No. 136 Suriname on Tuesday in Bridgeview, Ill.

Aruba (1-2-0) is coming off a 3-1 win over Bermuda on Wednesday. Aruba, population 120,000, opened qualifying with a 6-0 loss to Suriname before being blanked 5-0 by Bermuda.

The Canadians will be watching Friday’s match between host Suriname and Bermuda in Paramaribo. While Canada and Suriname are both 2-0-0, the Canadians have a plus-six edge in goal difference.

Tuesday’s Canada-Suriname contest should decide who moves on from Group B to a playoff against the Group E winner, likely No. 83 Haiti, No. 147 Nicaragua or No. 170 Belize, in a home-and-away playoff June 12 and 15 to determine who advances to the eight-team final qualifying round in the region that covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.

The winners of the three second-round playoffs join five other higher-ranked teams in the final round, which will see the teams play each other at home and on the road. Mexico (No. 11), the U.S. (No. 20), Jamaica (No. 45), Costa Rica (No. 50) and Honduras (No. 67) received byes directly to the so-called Octagonal.

The top three teams will qualify for Qatar 2022. The fourth-place finisher will take part in an intercontinental home-and-away playoff to see who joins them.

Canada has never played Aruba before at this level. The Canadian men beat Suriname 2-1 in their only previous international “A” level meeting, a 1977 World Cup qualifier.

Canada has not qualified for the final qualifying round since 1996-97 ahead of the 1998 World Cup in France. The Canadians finished sixth and last in that final round with a 1-6-3 record.

The Canadian men have only qualified for the World Cup once, in 1986 in Mexico where they failed to score a goal or secure a point in losses to France, Hungary and the Soviet Union.

Travel restrictions due to the pandemic have forced Canada and several other CONCACAF countries to find neutral sites to stage these qualifying games. The Canadian men’s March 26 match against Bermuda took place in Orlando rather than a home venue north of the border. The Suriname game in suburban Chicago was also slated to be a Canada home match.

Herdman has made seven changes from the squad that faced Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, citing form, availability and injury.

Coming in are David, Tajon Buchanan, Liam Fraser, Doneil Henry, Scott Kennedy, Jonathan Osorio and James Pantemis.

Vitoria started against Bermuda, earning his 15th cap for Canada.

Born in Toronto to Portuguese parents, Vitoria went to Portugal as a teenager to follow his soccer dream. He played for Portugal at the under-19 and under-20 level before switching international allegiance and debuting for Canada in February 2016.

He is currently with Moreirense FC, which finished eighth in the Portuguese top tier this season. Prior to that he played for Lechia Gdansk in Poland, the Philadelphia Union in MLS and Benfica, Estoril and several other Portuguese clubs on loan.


Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press


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