Coquitlam midfielder boots his way to U17 World Cup

A young Coquitlam soccer player is living his sports dream.

Emiliano Brienza is in soccer-mad Brazil, where he’s playing for Canada’s U17 national team at the FIFA U17 World Cup. The team opened the 24-team tournament Saturday, losing 4-1 to the host country at Bezerrao Stadium in Brasilia.

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And while it would be easy for Brienza to become overwhelmed by the almost 12,000 fans in green and yellow chanting and singing in the rain for the home side, he said the chance to wear the red-and-white kit of Canada is something he never thought possible when he was growing up in Mexico.

“We didn’t have a lot of the things,” Brienza said of his native country, from he and his family emigrated in 2015, when he was 13 years-old.

When Brienza’s family moved, he found an immediate connection to his new home through soccer. He played with Mountain United in the BC Soccer Premier League, then joined the Whitecaps FC Academy in September 2018. Last February, he signed with the club’s development squad and subsequently played three matches with its U19 team.

Six players from the Whitecaps academy are on the U17 national side, although Brienza wasn’t initially among them as the team played CONCACAF qualifying tournaments. But his strong play at midfield and defence in a couple of training camps caught the attention of coaches.

Brienza rewarded their faith in him by scoring a goal in a pre-tournament friendly earlier in October against another soccer powerhouse, Argentina.

He said it was easy to fit into a side that had already been together and played meaningful matches. Having some teammates from the Whitecaps also helped.

“You can really see the brotherhood,” he said after bonding with his new mates at camp in Montreal. “It really comes together and everyone is in on it.”

That kind of commitment will be required if the Canadian squad is to advance out of its group, which also includes Angola and New Zealand.

“We have tough games but it’s not impossible,” Brienza said prior to departing for Brazil. “We have nothing to lose, so we’re going to go there and try to do our best.”

Brienza, who has played international matches in South Korea and Mexico with his Whitecaps team, said those experiences pale to what the team faces at the World Cup, which has catapulted stars like Neymar, David Silva, Xavi and Gianluigi Buffon to international attention.

“Big players come out of there and hopefully some of us get that kind of exposure that we need,” he said.

The tournament is also a golden opportunity to show the world a bright future for Canadian soccer, Brienza said.

“I think everyone looks down on Canada, and I think it’s a great opportunity for us to show what we have.”

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