Much has changed since Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio first attended a Canadian national team camp in March 2013.
All for the good.
The 28-year-old Osorio, who has won 34 caps for Canada, painted a rosy picture Wednesday of the squad currently training in Bradenton, Fla. While key players such as Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich), Jonathan David (Lille), Milan Borjan (Red Star Belgrade), Scott Arfield (Rangers), Junior Hoilett (Cardiff City) and Cyle Larin and Atiba Hutchinson (both Besiktas) are not there given the January camp does not fall in a FIFA international window, Osorio likes what he sees in the young talent around him.
This camp is worlds apart from Osorio's first.
"Much different. Much more competitive," Osorio told reporters. "A lot of players playing at good clubs, playing at a high level and playing at their clubs regularly."
In the past, the talent pool wasn't as deep and Canadians were often buried on the depth chart at their clubs.
Osorio welcomes the step up.
"I love it. I wish it was like this eight years ago," he said. "But I'm happy with the way it is now. I'm very excited, The development has come a long way in this country. And it shows every time. Every January camp, it gets better. "
Coach John Herdman says he has some 88 players in his extended talent pool with a top tier of some 45. He will dig into that squad in a busy 2021 with World Cup and Olympic qualifying set to begin in March and the Gold Cup scheduled for July.
First-time call-ups at the Florida camp, the first for Canada since last January, are Tajon Buchanan (New England), Cristian Gutierrez (Vancouver), Belal Halbouni (SV Werder Bremen II, Germany), Alistair Johnston (Nashville SC), Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and Ralph Priso (Toronto FC), Dayne St. Clair (Minnesota United), Frank Sturing (Den Bosch, the Netherlands) and Joel Waterman (CF Montreal).
More than half the players in the squad were born 1997 or later, which also makes them eligible for Canada's Olympic team.
"Very very exciting players," said Osorio. "Players that belong on the pitch with the veteran players and all the better players … These young players are making a case to be a part of the full men's team as well."
Now Canada has to deliver on that talent, says Osorio.
The Canadian men have only qualified for one World Cup, in 1986 in Mexico, and have not taken part in the Olympics since 1984. Its lone Gold Cup triumph came in 2000.
"We're still trying to make an imprint on world football, in CONCACAF and in the world," said Osorio. "We're still developing as a team. We have now the talent there. So, of course, we can't waste it. We know this. We're well aware of this. But we're more excited about it than anything."
"These things are possible now. These things are not out of reach," he added.
It will take the Canadian men 20 qualifying matches to get to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
"It's a long road but there's no better day than today to start working towards that," said Osorio.
With three MLS teams and the Canadian Premier League, Canada now offers a place for talent to develop at home, he believes.
In contrast, a teenage Osorio left friends and family to pursue his soccer dream in Uruguay, along with friend and Canadian teammate Lucas Cavallini (now with the Vancouver Whitecaps).
While they spoke the language — Osorio's parents were born in Colombia while Cavallini's father is originally from Argentina — it wasn't easy. They lived in dormitory-style accommodations with Uruguayan juniors who initially saw them as foreign intruders looking to take their jobs.
"Canada is a young country when it comes to world football," said Osorio. "We're a little bit behind the other countries as far as experience and things like that. But we are gaining knowledge every day, sending coaches to do licences overseas and things like that.
"So things are being done the right way now, the way they are done around the world. And that's what's helping this country grow … As long as we stay on this path, the sky's the limit for Canada soccer, because there is a lot of talent in this country."
The Canadians are set to play the U.S. in a scrimmage Saturday.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press