Ring-chasing: 2021 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers provides chance for CanMNT to break 5-ring drought, audition young players

Canada Men’s National Soccer Team’s under 23 squad will head down to Mexico this week, where they’ll begin their final preparations ahead of Olympic qualifiers, which start on March 18th. In this, we look at what to expect from them this tournament, in which they’ll look to try and break a 37-year Olympic drought.

It’s flown under the radar, but it’s a chance to make history. 

In less than 2 weeks’ time, Canada’s Men’s National Team’s U23 side will take the field against El Salvador’s U23s down in Guadalajara Mexico, officially kicking off their quest to participate in the 2021 Olympics in Men’s Soccer. 

Despite having vital World Cup qualifying matches for the senior team at the same time, Canada is looking to find a way to be one of the two finalists at this CONCACAF Men’s Olympic qualifying tournament, booking a ticket to Tokyo in the process. 

If they were to do so, it’d be the first-ever instance where Canada would be able to send both Men’s and Women’s soccer teams to the Olympics at the same time, as the Women already claimed their spot at the big dance back in February of 2020. 

A busy road awaits them, however, as they’ll have to find a way to finish in the top 2 of their group in Mexico, before winning a crucial, one-off, winner-takes-all game to get into the Olympics, which is going to be a tall task for Mauro Biello’s squad to undertake. 

They’ll be feeling as confident as ever, though, as they head into this squad with arguably their deepest U23 pool in ages. Despite not having the services of their two best U23 players, the pair of 2000-born stars Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, as well as some other potential U23 game-breakers, Canada should still be able to field a strong 20-man squad, at least if their 50-man preliminary squad is any indication. 

So heading into this tournament, it’ll be interesting to see how Canada will fare in a tournament they’ve historically struggled in, as they look to return to the Olympics for the first time since 1984. 

(Editor’s Note: As of writing, Canada’s Olympic squad hasn’t been released, but when it comes out, it’ll be added here. You can also expect a more detailed breakdown of the squad in the coming days.)

UPDATE: The Canadian Squad has been released, you can find it below

A chance to reverse their trend:

To get there, however, it will require a Herculean effort, as Canada will be in tough in their quest to try and grind their way through. With this tournament being a U23 venture, as mentioned earlier, it favours teams with strong development systems, something that Canada hasn’t really been able to lay much of a claim of having in the past 30 years. 

Making it even tougher for them is the fact that this tournament is held outside of an official FIFA window, meaning that teams aren’t required to release players for games. That usually denies teams in CONCACAF of their best European U23 players, such as Davies and David in Canada’s case, as their clubs are unlikely to release any players seen as vital to their efforts.

That means that in CONCACAF, teams with strong domestic leagues, such as the US, Mexico or Honduras, tend to do well, given that players from those leagues tend to make up the majority of these rosters. With domestic leagues usually having a vested interest in seeing their countries make the Olympics, they’re more likely to release players to this competition, hence the importance of having a strong competition in one’s country. 

Unfortunately for Canada, that hasn’t been the case for much of the last 30 years, as they’ve been forced to rely on a mix of players playing abroad and young players who aren’t quite ready for the spotlight, which is a big reason why they haven’t qualified for the Olympics since 1984. 

With a dearth of professional clubs compared to many of their CONCACAF rivals, it has historically limited the number of players able to get minutes in pro environments, weakening their player pool. 

Things are changing for them, however, as the creation of the Canadian Premier League ahead of their first season of competition in 2019 has drastically increased the pool of U23 players getting consistent professional minutes. With their 8 clubs, as well as the 3 Canadian MLS teams, it has given way more opportunities to young Canadians to get pro minutes. 

While they aren’t yet up there with the likes of Mexico and the US in terms of player development, as those nations could arguably field 2 or 3 teams of U23 players getting consistent minutes in their leagues, MLS and Liga MX, this is probably one of the deepest U23 pools that Canada has had in a while, as a result of their efforts at building a domestic league. 

That should give them a chance at reversing their recent trend in this tournament, as they look to break the three-team oligarchy that has historically reigned in these qualifiers. Since Canada last qualified for the Olympics in 1984, only 5 different CONCACAF teams have made it to the big tournament, the US, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica, with only 3, the US (x5), Mexico (x5) and Honduras (x4) making it more than one time. 

But now, with Canada’s ability to field a roster majoritarily comprised of players with professional experience in this tournament, something they haven’t always been able to do in the past, they’re hoping that they can change that, knowing that they’ll have a battle-tested roster.

So heading into this tournament, Canada is feeling decently optimistic, as they’ll look to try and break that 37-year Olympic drought down in Mexico. 

The format: 

In order to qualify for the Olympics, though, Canada will have to finish as a top 2 team in this 8-team tournament, of which they earned the right to participate in as one of three automatic qualifiers out of the 3-team North American Football Union, comprised of them, the US and Mexico. Joining them are the Central American Football Union’s three qualified teams, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras, as well as the Caribbean’s Football Union’s two qualified teams, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. 

The teams have already been split into two groups of 8 in a draw held back in February of 2020, ahead of the original tournament, which was supposed to be held in March of 2020, before the pandemic hit and halted those plans.

That saw Mexico, the US, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic drawn together in Group A, while Canada found itself with El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti in Group B, which will remain the case in this tournament. In round robin play, each team will play every other team in their group once, with the top 2 teams from each pool of 4 advancing to the semi-finals, where the first-place team from one side will play the second-place team from the other, and vice versa. 

Then, that’s where the fun really begins, as the two semi-finals essentially serve as ‘win and your in’ games, with both winners qualifying for the Olympics. Those two winners will still play a final, as there is a trophy on the line, but in order to make the Olympics, the key is winning that semi-final. 

Basically, this tournament requires you to hit the ground running, as a few early losses could see you on the wrong half of your group, and all of a sudden, after 3 games, you could find yourself heading home early. 

For Canada, they have a pretty mixed draw as a whole, because while they avoided the dreaded ‘big two’ of the US and Mexico in the group stages, if they make it to the semi-finals, they’re almost guaranteed to have to play one of them in that ‘win and you’re in’ game, barring a major surprise.

In a short tournament format like this, anything can happen, but it makes things all that much harder. On top of that, they’ve got a very balanced group in El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti, meaning that their path to the knockout stages isn’t very clear either, putting them in a proper battle just to get out of the group. 

Tournament soccer is never an easy beast to navigate, so this will be a stiff test for Canada to navigate, which has both its pros and cons for this young team.

A chance to impress: 

(From left to right) Vancouver Whitecaps players Lucas Cavallini, Cristian Gutierrez, Derek Cornelius, Theo Bair and Maxime Crepeau pose at the CanMNT January camp earlier this year (Canada Soccer)

But while Canada’s in tough, on paper, they’ll feel as confident as they’ve ever been, given the depth that their squad has, which will give them a boost over past iterations of their Olympic qualifying teams. 

With there being a mix of aspiring, fringe and even some locked-in National Team players on their squad, Canada will have a team of players both hungry to win and to impress the first-team coach, John Herdman, who will be closely watching Mauro Biello’s charges. 

It’s too bad that Canada’s senior team is playing World Cup qualifiers at the same time as the U23’s will be down in Mexico, denying them of a few names, but the players who are called to action will know that a strong tournament could see their names thrown into the mix for the first team, who will need depth this year. 

At the very least, there will be a good chunk of World Cup qualifiers to be played in 2021, as well as a Gold Cup in the summer, and the Olympics (if they make it that far), so this tournament will be an excellent chance for some players to raise their stock. 

But at the same time, there is a question that looms: with those World Cup qualifiers being at the same time, doesn’t that weaken Canada’s Olympic squad, therefore making it less likely that some of these players are on the radar for the senior team, given that Herdman has said his priority is making the World Cup? 

So while it’s easy to suggest that some of these players might not be that close to first-team duty, diminishing the value of this supposed audition, that absolutely doesn’t appear to be the case. As Herdman told Onesoccer in an interview at the end of February, he’s going to try and find a balance between picking his best team for World Cup qualifiers and Olympic qualifiers, meaning that there will be some players with plenty to prove down in Mexico. 

That adds extra value to these games, knowing both that A) Canada is trying to qualify for the Olympics, and B) a lot of these players will also be in Canada’s long-term plans for the first team. 

And while that is usually the case every time Canada enters this tournament, it does feel like things are different this time. Yes, their ability to do A is hampered by the fact that there’s that overlap with World Cup qualifiers, but they’re still going to try and do a ‘best of both worlds’ solution, showing their intents.

As for B, you never know how successful a program will be at integrating these players into the first team in the long-term, but given how much more seasoned this U23 team seems compared to past iterations, things do feel different. 

Look at the last time Canada fielded an Olympic qualifiers squad, back in 2015, as an example. Of those 20 players selected, only 3 are what you’d call National Team regulars now, Maxime Crepeau, Mark Anthony Kaye and Samuel Piette, and only 1 of the remaining other 16 players have even earned a call-up since the start of 2020, and that was Jay Chapman for Canada’s Camp Poutine’ in January of last year. 

While the squad isn’t out yet as of writing, when you look at the preliminary roster, there is already 1 first-team regular on the list, Derek Cornelius, and 12 other players who already have senior caps to their name.

Along with a mix of youngsters playing in Europe on the cusp of breaking out, such as Lucas Dias and Theo Corbeanu, as well as a few other intriguing youngsters playing in the CPL and MLS, and it feels like Canada should probably get more than 3 long-term National Team regulars out of this Olympic squad. 

Ultimately, like most youth tournaments, that take will either be proven right or wrong in a few years, so it’s too early to stamp a guarantee down beside it, but suffice to say, there’s a lot of promise in this roster, and they’ll have a lot to play for down in Mexico. 

A lack of preparation a worry:

Although Canada will feel relatively confident about their chances of doing well at this tournament, there is one factor worth noting, however: we haven’t really seen this group play together, at all. 

The last U23 camp Canada held came all the way back in 2018, in which they called up 21 Olympic-eligible players (and David Edgar, for some reason), giving them an early look at players ahead of these qualifiers. 3 years on, only 10 of those players even made the 50-player list, let alone the final squad, showing how quickly things have changed. 

While that can be seen as a good thing, as a lot of new players have crawled their way into the picture with strong performances at the youth and professional levels, but there’s no doubt that a lack of minutes together is a worry, especially heading into a tournament like this. 

And while a lack of U23-specific camps is already enough of an issue, there’s the fact that due to the rise of dual-nationals and late bloomers in this squad, a lot of these players haven’t played together at the youth levels, either. 

Of the 20 players that were on Canada’s last U20 team, which was put together in 2018 ahead of the 2019 U20 World Cup qualifiers, only 7 are on the 50-man list for the Olympics. Even going back to the 2017 U20 team, who attempted to qualify for the 2017 U20 World Cup, only 6 of those players made this 50-man list. 

For those keeping track, that’s only 13 out of the 50 players on Canada’s preliminary squad list that played in U20 World Cup qualifiers, which are supposed to be a precursor of sorts for the U23 team.

That lack of continuity may come back to haunt Canada during these qualifiers, where familiarity will play a big role given the lack of time that teams will have to prepare for this tournament. 

Plus, other teams are preparing, so Canada’s going to have to find a way to come out of the gates strongly, or else the other countries could take advantage of a slow start. Several of the Central American and Caribbean U23 teams have been playing games dating back to 2019, and the US has been training down in Mexico for over a week already, while Canada is still only on its way down. 

The good news is that a good chunk of Canada’s Olympic hopefuls got called up to Camp Poutine earlier this year, in which Herdman called up nearly twenty U23 players as part of the camp the senior team held outside of the FIFA window, giving some of these players some valuable preparation time together in a structured environment, at least. 

There’s no doubt that compared to most of the other nations at this tournament, Canada’s preparation does still lag behind, but hopefully they find a way to have a strong 10 days of training ahead of the start of the tournament, allowing them to start strong. 

Looking Forward: 

So now, Canada’s focus will be on getting the most out of their final squad, who are heading down to Mexico this week in order to start preparations for their first game in just under 10 days. 

It won’t be an easy tournament for these players, as they’ll have a lot to deal with, but compared to past iterations of the U23 squad, it does feel like these bunch could make a fair bit of noise down in Mexico. 

Ultimately, the goal is to qualify, no doubt, but this tournament could serve as a launching pad for several players, putting them in front of Herdman’s eyes ahead of World Cup qualifiers and the Gold Cup this year. 

And in a tournament, you never know what can happen, so hopefully Biello is able to quickly transmit his tactics and ideas to these players, allowing them to possibly shock some teams despite their overall lack of preparation compared to some of the other nations. 

All part of what’s shaping up to be a big year for Canada’s Men’s Soccer teams, this is a great chance for these players to impress on a big stage, which is hopefully an opportunity they grasp with both hands and turn into a memory Canadian soccer fans won’t forget anytime soon. 

Up Next: Canada vs El Salvador, Friday, March 19th, 2021, 15:00 PST/18:00 EST (Guadalajara, Mexico)

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer

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