Some of League1 Ontario's best players from 2014 will get the chance to face the top talent in the world as they have been selected to don the Canada shirt and stare down Brazil in the Pan Am Games on Sunday, July 12.
And they’ll have a sold-out Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton cheering them on.
Chris Mannella and Molham Babouli, who were standouts for League1 2014 regular-season titlists TFC Academy and who have since moved on to TFC II in the United Soccer League - along with Raheem Edwards, who played for ANB Futbol Academy last year - will play for the Pan Am Games team, made up of players born after Jan. 1, 1993 (under-22).
Mannella, who has received call-up duty to Major League Soccer's Toronto FC, can't wait to play in the Pan Am Games.
"It's such a great honour every time I get to represent my country. I love wearing the Canada badge; it gives me a feeling that is hard to put into words. And with the Games being in Hamilton it makes it even more special because I get to have family and friends share this incredible experience with me," Mannella said.
Edwards shared the sentiment.
"I was a little surprised when I found out I was selected to the squad. There is so much talent in Canadian soccer so I am grateful to them for choosing me," Edwards said.
Mannella, a midfielder, said his year playing in League1 was helpful in developing his career.
"My coaches played a huge part, but the league held me at a high enough standard to prepare me for what was to come my way in the future," said Mannella.
Jason Bent, coach of TFC II, said League1 was a good training ground for the likes of Babouli, Edwards and Mannella.
"I think so. Several years ago, I was working in the (TFC) Academy and we had players coming through like Doneil Henry, Ashtone Morgan, players like that and they were playing USL, against older players… and I can see that with League 1, they are playing against good competition so I do think it helps prepare them for the next level."
Bent thinks the Pan Am Games will be a good experience for his players.
"We want our players to get a good taste of international football, we know that will help them in their development. It will help them in their competitiveness. And they will be playing at home: how often do you get the chance to do that in an international type tournament with friends and family to support them?"
In addition to Brazil, Canada are grouped with Peru and Panama. The other group contains Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago.
Canada plays Panama on Thursday, July 16, followed by its last group match on Monday, July 20 against Peru. All games are doubleheaders at Tim Hortons Field starting at 5:30 p.m. with Canada playing the second game of the doubleheader.
Only the top two teams in each group advance to the semifinals, which take place Thursday, July 23, starting at 5:30 p.m.
The final game is on Sunday, July 26, at 1 p.m. at Tim Hortons Field.
Mexico and Brazil have each won the Pan Am title four times. Mexico won most recently at home at the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara.