Canada is going to the World Cup!

Okay, it’s the U17 World Cup, but considering that the last 12-months have seen Canada crash out of World Cup qualifying at the senior and U20 level, any success should be celebrated. It’s especially gratifying in that it will be Canada’s second consecutive appearance U17 World Cup.

The back-to-back trips come at a time when the influence of the professional academies is growing. Indeed, 13 members of the team come from a domestic professional environment, with 10 coming from either the Vancouver Whitecaps or Toronto FC academy.

Clearly, these teams have helped the program. After all, it had been 16-years between U17 World Cups for Canada prior to 2011.

Manager Sean Fleming directly pointed to this in a conference call following qualification.

“The credit is to the professional academies, and also the provincial programs and clubs,” he said. “Everything across the country is getting better.”

‘Getting better’ needs to be taken in context, of course. The recent failure of the U20 team tells us that there is still lots of improvement to be had.

Fleming alluded to that.

“We have to get (more) opportunities for these younger players. The 18-19-year-old age is still a difficult age for these kids to find spots,” he said.

“I still think we have to somehow better prepare them to play in MLS… We have to find those good competitive environments for the kids so they can continue to develop.”

And there’s the rub. Yes, Canadian soccer is doing some things right (finally), but there is still (as always) many, many problems. Too often in the past the Canadian program has been blinded by modest success, like qualifying for a youth World Cup, and has not been able to see the full picture.

The U17 World Cup is a wonderful learning experience for players. It puts them in a pressure situation and it also creates a patriotic bond between the players and the national program. However, it’s not an end goal.

Most of the world understands that. No one in Europe holds up U17 success to mean much more than what it is: yet-to-be-fulfilled promise. It’s unlikely that there are many in Switzerland celebrating their 2009 U17 title. If anyone there even thinks about it, it’s likely in the context of how it helped develop future club and country stars.

Closer to home, Mexico’s 2005 title is marked as the beginning of that country’s emergence as a contender beyond CONCACAF’s borders. Yet today only four players—Efrain Juarez, Hector Moreno, Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Vela—have more than 30 senior caps for the national team.

That’s actually a good turnover for an U17 team. If a country can produce three semi-regular and one regular (dos Santos, in this case) player per cycle, it’s laughing.

Of course in Mexico, we’re talking about the U17 World Cup champions. More importantly we’re talking about a country that has an established and wide-ranging academy system tied into its professional league, a league that operates within the worlds player market and makes considerable money selling its homegrown players to bigger leagues.

Canada meanwhile has three pro academies that often seem more interested in getting its players NCAA scholarships than they do in producing future professionals. The struggles of players like Russell Teibert or Doneil Henry to get playing time in MLS—or, more troubling, the struggles a player like Matt Stinson has in even finding a pro team—demonstrate just how big a hole there is n the Canadian pyramid.

A U17 run may be more sexy, but real hope in the game here will only be found by filling that hole. The biggest issue facing Canadian soccer today the lack of a stable league option for our academy graduates to flourish in when they aren’t quite ready for MLS, but too good to be in college soccer.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t enjoy the current U17 team’s run in the upcoming World Cup. By all means, cheer them on and be excited for them. Just keep it in context.

The future success of Canadian soccer has little correlation with success in a two-week tournament in Panama.