Experienced New Zealand Under-20 squad selected for Fifa World Cup in South Korea
When coach Darren Bazeley sat down to select his squad for this month's Fifa Under-20 World Cup in South Korea, he wasn't lacking for experience.
He had five All Whites he could include, to start with, including Auckland City's Clayton Lewis, who will captain the team, as he did at the Oceania Championships last year, Wellington Phoenix striker Logan Rogerson, Brisbane Roar fullback Dane Ingham, Blackpool midfielder Henry Cameron, and Melbourne-based midfielder Moses Dyer.
Then there was Noah Billingsley, who was a member of the squad that made the round of 16 on home soil two years ago, alongside Lewis and Dyer, and is now at college in the United States. Joining him in America and in this group are four others, including Phoenix academy graduate Joe Bell, and then there's the two other players based in England, goalkeeper Michael Woud of Sunderland, and striker Myer Bevan, who is with the Nike Academy.
Of the 21 players named, 14 have been to a Fifa World Cup before, and 11 have made the step up from the last Under-17 World Cup squad. Fifteen were part of the group that won the Oceania title last year, while nine are based at academies or amateur clubs in New Zealand and 12 are based overseas or senior professionals at the Phoenix.
Last time out, that last split was 15 and six, though many of the first group were with the Wanderers SC team that spent two national league seasons together leading up to the home event.
"Every squad you take does have different strength and weaknesses," said Bazeley on Monday, on the eve of the team flying out to China, where they will complete their preparations with matches against Mexico (on Saturday) and a local club side (next Tuesday).
"The last group was very good, and had been together for a long time, and some of the players have gone on to bigger and better things, and that's great, and this is another good group. There's some very exciting players in this group - we've got players that have previous experience playing for the All Whites, we've got players that have been to a World Cup before, whether for the under-20s or under-17s.
"When you look through the squad, it's a very young squad as well. We've got six 1999-born players, which are eligible to go through to the next group, which is important for us, - that we're competitive, but also able to look forward, and give those players this experience."
This is Bazeley's second cycle in charge of this age group, and after what he and his players managed in 2015, there is plenty to live up to. That team notched New Zealand's first win at this level in their final group game, then put in a very impressive showing against Portugal in the round of 16, going out to a wonder goal in Hamilton.
Reaching the same stage has to be the minimum target this time around, and given who else is lining up in Group E, it is easily within range, though as Bazeley was quick to bring up on Monday, there is often a difference between what something looks like on paper, and what it ends up being like on grass.
Vietnam are New Zealand's first opponent, on May 22, and are making their first appearance at any Fifa event, so a win is there for the taking and then some. Then comes Honduras, on May 25, who lost to Fiji 3-0 at this level in Christchurch two years ago, a result which suggests they are beatable, but that they will also be desperate not to suffer the same fate twice.
Finally, there is France, on May 28, who are widely considered the tournament favourites, as they continue to strike a rich vein of footballing talent. For example, they have available Kylian Mbappe, a forward who will later this week play in the Uefa Champions League for Monaco, though it is unclear whether he will be included for this event, as higher honours beckon.
A win and a draw was enough to advance as the best third-placed team two years ago, and that should be achievable here.
AT A GLANCE
2017 Fifa Under-20 World Cup - New Zealand squad
Goalkeepers: Michael Woud, Cameron Brown, Conor Tracey
Defenders: Dane Ingham, Sean Liddicoat, Luke Johnson, Hunter Ashworth, Reese Cox, Jack-Henry Sinclair
Midfielders: James McGarry, Connor Probert, Moses Dyer, Joe Bell, Clayton Lewis (c), Callum McCowatt, Sarpreet Singh, Henry Cameron
Forwards: Noah Billingsley, Myer Bevan, Logan Rogerson, Lucas Imrie
Fixtures (All NZ time)
May 22, 11pm, v Vietnam
May 25, 11pm, v Honduras
May 28, 6pm, v France