Olympic Dreaming: CanMNT U23’s getting set to kick off CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers with ‘important’ game versus El Salvador

On Friday, Canada’s Men’s National U23 Soccer Team kicks off their 2021 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament, as they’ll take on El Salvador down in Guadalajara, Mexico. Here’s a preview of that match, as Canada looks to start off this tournament on the right foot with a win against their plucky Central American rivals. 

All of a sudden, things are about to get real. 

Nearly a year on from when this was supposed to originally happen, Canada’s Men’s National U23 Soccer Team will kick off their 2021 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying campaign on Friday, when they take on El Salvador down in Mexico to kick off Group B action. 

As they look to erase a 37-year Olympic drought, this game will be key in their quest to Tokyo, where they’ll be hoping to have the chance to participate among the various other athletes that Canada will be sending. 

Taking on a plucky El Salvador team who is looking to erase a similarly long Olympic drought (albeit there’s is a bit longer at 53 years), this is a good chance to see where Canada’s at ahead of the rest of their group stage games, which consist of a matchup with a plucky Haiti side, as well as a date with the group favourites, Honduras. 

With an experienced squad in tow, Canada believes that they’ve got as good a shot as any at making it through this group stage and past the ‘win and you’re in’ semi-final, booking their ticket to Tokyo in the process. Having made that semi-final in each of the last 3 editions of this tournament, despite having less experienced squads at their disposal, it should give Canada plenty of reason to believe in their chances of qualifying ahead of this tournament. 

But to get that far, a strong performance in their first game will go a long way towards determining their potential fate in this tournament. A first game win might not change their fortunes massively, but a first-game loss could be devastating, so it’s important to come out on the front foot in a game like this. 

So as they get ready to take on El Salvador on Friday, they’ve spent a lot of time preparing for what their Central American foes have to offer, which they hope allows them to start off this tournament on the right note. 

“El Salvador traditionally is a team that likes to possess the ball, is a team in attack will like to combine, to eliminate, this is the type of team that we’re looking to face,” Canada head coach Mauro Biello told reporters on Thursday. “Very technical, very good in tight spaces, organized defensively, so we’re looking to face this type of opposition in El Salvador, hopefully we’ve prepared to face them in the right way.”

And while a lot of focus will be on limiting what El Salvador can do to them, the bigger onus from Canada has to be on bringing their A-game, allowing them to dictate the tempo that the match will be played at. 

Against an El Salvador team that has already had multiple camps together as a U23 team, it won’t be easy, but it’s something that Biello and his staff have made sure to emphasize in training so far, as they want this Canadian team to be a side that takes control of games, no matter the level of the opponent. 

“It’s extremely important this first game,” Biello said. “It sets the tone for us, for sure we’re looking to win this game, we’re looking to win every game as best we can, for sure we know it’ll be a tough competition today in El Salvador, a team that’s been together 3 times previous to this tournament, so we’re looking at a team that may have rhythm, and we’re going to need to break up that rhythm and make sure we install our identity and impose ourselves on the game.”

But that’s going to be easier said than done. With several of his Canadian and US-based players coming to this camp having not played competitive soccer over the course of this past year, just getting them up to speed again has been a key priority for Biello in the lead-up to this tournament. 

They did find a way to partly remedy that problem, bringing in some European-based players who are currently in-season, such as Kris Twardek, Lucas Dias, Charles-Andreas Brym and Marcus Godinho, among others, giving Canada some in-form players to possibly turn to. 

So for Biello, that’s certainly helped ease his worries that his team might not be ready to go right out of the gates, but it’s still something that he’s monitoring heading into this first game.

“That’s obviously my main concern, trying to get that rhythm,” Biello said. “A lot of these players haven’t played, whether it’s offseason, whether it’s preseason, we have some players from Europe. For sure, that was the main objective into this camp to try and find that collective rhythm for these players which was #1 on my agenda, and it’s normal.”

And although Canada won’t have had as much preparation time as their foes, they’ve still had a few opportunities to get a decent chunk of these players together. 

January camps in both 2020 and 2021 served as one such opportunity to do that, as Canada brought in several U23 players for both of those camps, allowing Biello to get a closer look at some of his potential charges. 

So heading into this game, expect a mix of players who’ve played together at those camps and those European-based players to make up Canada’s starting 11, as Biello and his staff look to start this tournament off on the right foot. 

From there, they’ll hope to grow into the rest of the games, but that only becomes harder if they fail to start strongly, so look for them to do what they can to come away from this game victorious. 

“I think the camp in January did help, because we were able to transmit our identity to some of those players for the first time in January,” Biello said. “So now they’re coming again into camp for the second time and seeing it again and are feeling more comfortable about the way we want to play, so that definitely helped, so now it’s about growing in this tournament, I told the group I know it won’t be perfect at the beginning, but as long as we’re competitive enough to get the points that we need, that’s important, and we’ll grow from there.”

BTSVancity Player to Watch: Michael Baldisimo

Michael Baldisimo in action for the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2020 (Keveren Guillou)

To start this tournament, it’s hard to predict who will step up and grab the reins for this Canadian team, but if we had to pick someone, it’d have to be Michael Baldisimo. 

Coming off of a strong rookie season in MLS for the Vancouver Whitecaps, the midfielder is going to play a big role for Canada in this tournament, as his unique skill set as a two-way midfield lynchpin is something this team will need to see a lot of in these games. 

So keep an eye out for him versus El Salvador. Given that their Central American foes are likely to sit deep and bunker, having someone like Baldisimo picking out passes could be a way for Canada to get chances offensively. 


How will Canada defend?  A big focus for Canada this tournament has to be on the defensive side of things, which is an area in which they’ve struggled at in past tournaments. 

Led by Derek Cornelius, who is arguably Canada’s best centre back at the senior level based on his form for them over the past 2 years, this Canadian team may be one of the most defensively sound ones they’ve had in recent editions of this tournament, at least on paper. 

So for them, they have to focus on translating that onto the pitch, as their ability to defend will play a big role in their chances at qualifying, with defence often playing a big role in tournaments like this. 

Avoid the ‘CONCACAF-itis’: There’s a reason why CONCACAF is one of the toughest regions to play in, as many of their teams are masters of the dark arts, making them frustrating to play against. 

For Canada, it’ll be important to not get dragged into all of that, which has sometimes been something they’ve struggled with in the past. It’s a lot easier said than done, but it can make a big difference, so hopefully they can keep a cool head in this game. 

The weather won’t help, as it’s supposed to be around 30 degrees Celcius down in Mexico, so it’ll take every ounce of their concentration to pull off. 

Use their depth: Lastly, Canada has to find a way to use the depth that they have at their disposal this tournament, as using their substitutes at the right moments could prove to be very beneficial for them late on in games. 

It’s not often that Canada has had depth like this at this tournament, so they absolutely need to take advantage of it, especially with there being such a short turnaround between games. 

With the aforementioned heat, as well, it should give plenty of incentive for Biello to not be shy in knowing when to turn to his bench when needed. 

Projected XI: 

It’ll be interesting to see what Mauro Biello’s starting XI actually ends up looking like, but based on a mix of chemistry, experience and familiarity, here’s what we think he might trot out versus El Salvador. 

Looking Forward:

So now, Canada will get set to come out flying against El Salvador on Friday, as they look to back up what they’ve talked about in the lead-up to this match. 

It won’t be an easy game, so they’ll have to be at their best, but if they do that, they should be able to get off of a strong start. 

Ahead of what’s going to be a massive tournament for them, this is a big chance to get the ball rolling early, helping them gain some positive momentum heading into the rest of their games. 

With the chance to put all those years of history behind them, hopefully they’ll come out and bring their A-game, pushing them onto a strong start. 

As a big year for Canadian Soccer continues, this is hoped to be a sign of what’s to come, so it’ll be interesting to see how Canada fares in this opening game on Friday. 

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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