Colin Miller has a roster of youngsters for Canada's Gold Cup campaign, but that doesn't mean he'll toss them straight into the fire.
Eight players will make their international senior debut in CONCACAF's biennial championship tournament, but Canada's interim head coach said he'll "drip feed" the newcomers into Sunday's opening game against Martinique.
"We have to see how they're doing, how they're responding to the senior guys in training," Miller said on a conference call Thursday. "There's an assessment being made every day in training to see how the young guys are handling this environment. They're coming from their own club environment where they're fairly comfortable, now they're coming into a national team environment where it's a step higher obviously.
"So to throw a full team of young lads into a fixture against Martinique wouldn't be the right way to do it."
Miller selected his 23-man squad with an aim to give the young players crucial senior international experience ahead of 2016 Olympic and 2018 World Cup qualifying.
The eight rookies — Keven Aleman, Samuel Piette, Kyle Bekker, Doneil Henry, Jonathan Osorio, Pedro Pacheco, Russell Teibert, and Simon Thomas — have shown well in training since camp opened last week in Oxnard, Calif.
"But as you can imagine, it's another step when you actually throw them into the fixture," said Miller, who won't be Canada's coach much longer — veteran Spanish manager Benito Floro is expected to be named head coach on Friday.
Miller said Osorio has "looked sharp in training," and said he's "a fan" of Bekker. Aleman, Miller said, "is a very talented young man but certainly has to learn the role defensively and what more is involved. With the ball at his feet is a very very talented young man."
Miller was able to give every player at least 45 minutes on the field in a 1-1 draw Tuesday in a warm-up match versus the Ventura County Fusion of the USL Premier Development League.
"We managed to get through that with the guys and each goalkeeper played 30 minutes and that's all the exercise was for," Miller said. "If anyone reads into the result of that game too much, I think it would be very foolish."
The younger players are anchored by national team mainstays such as Julian de Guzman and Simeon Jackson. Will Johnson — who's having a strong season for the Portland Timbers, twice winning MLS goal of the week honours — will captain the Canadian team, and the armband has been a long time coming, Miller said.
"I've certainly admired Will for some time now," Miller said. "From Day 1 of my involvement with the national team, Will would have been my captain. But this has actually been my first trip that I've actually had the chance to work with Will. He brings a winning mentality, he brings a fierce competitiveness to his play, he's a leader within the group, he's a natural leader, and he's also the captain of his MLS side now. To be a Canadian captain the US is quite an accomplishment I think, so it's a real testament to the qualities that Will brings.
"But he's a leader, he's setting standards, and I'm really excited about the fact Will has been given this opportunity. When I spoke to him about it, he was absolutely over the moon and very proud as you would imagine."
Martinique is considered Canada's easiest opponent of its group. The Caribbean country is unranked by FIFA, while Mexico is No. 20 in the world and No. 1 in CONCACAF, and Panama is fourth in CONCACAF, and ranked 51st by FIFA. Canada, meanwhile, is 10th in CONCACAF, and 88th in FIFA rankings.
Miller said it crucial, however, that his Canadian side doesn't look past Martinique at the game in Pasadena, Calif.
"We've hammered it home every day here, our total focus to this point has been on Martinique and that will remain so until after the game and then our focus will be on Mexico," Miller said. "We've said it every day and I'll repeat it again this morning when we get to training, that our focus is totally on Martinique."
The coach wasn't revealing who he'll have in net Sunday, saying all three 'keepers — Lars Hirschfeld, Milan Borjan, and Thomas — have looked good in practice.
"All three 'keepers know that if they're showing very well in training, they'll get the nod on Sunday," Miller said. "It's a healthy situation, I love to see competition for places and the union, as we call them, has responded very well to it."
Randy Edwini-Bonsu is the only player who's a question mark for Sunday, after he "whacked his knee" on a hard training surface earlier this week.
The Canadians play Mexico next Thursday in Seattle, then close out the group stage versus Panama on July 14 in Denver.
Canada won the Gold Cup in 2000 and has made the semifinals on two other occasions.