On The Right Path: CanMNT U23’s ‘proud’ of strong start to CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers after 2-0 win over El Salvador

Canada’s Men’s National U23 Soccer Team’s Olympic qualifying campaign got off to a flying start on Friday, as they beat El Salvador 2-0 via a Tajon Buchanan brace. Here’s what stood out from that game, as they picked up a huge 3 points in their quest towards topping their Group down in Guadalajara, Mexico. 

It was a dream start for Canada down in Mexico on Friday. 

Taking on a plucky El Salvador team, Canada cruised to a 2-0 win, kicking off their CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying campaign in style. 

After seeing Group B favourites Honduras pick up a 3-0 win over an undermanned Haiti earlier in the day, Canada sent a big message to their group rivals with their win over El Salvador, showing competitors that they’re here to play this tournament. 

With their next game coming against Haiti on Monday, that game will be seen as an excellent chance to pick up another 3 valuable points in their quest to top the group, which they’re hoping to do as it would theoretically give them an easier matchup in the ‘win and you’re in’ semi-final game. 

But to get there first, they’ll need to follow up on what they showed against El Salvador on Friday, as they were full value for their win in this game, scoring 2 early goals before grinding out a result the rest of the way. 

For a Canadian team that has often lacked the sort of professionalism these kinds of games require in order to grind out, that they picked out this win was a sign of this team’s growing maturity, which is helped by the fact that this is one of the most experienced Canadian sides that we’ve seen at this U23 competition in recent editions. 

“‘Yeah, I’m happy with the result,” Canadian head coach Mauro Biello said after the game. “I think it was tough for the boys in terms of their fitness of this group, but I’m very proud of the way they fought, the way they were able to hurt the other team in moments and closed off the game. I think that’s what was most important.”

Now, they can dream of Olympic glory as they head into the rest of these games. There’s still a lot of work to do, as you can’t win a tournament in the first game, but you can certainly lose it, and Canada did well to avoid falling in that trap during this game. 

With this being such a short tournament, momentum can play a big role, so this win could prove to be key when considering the big picture.

Before we look that far, however, it’s important that we look back at what Canada did so well in this game, as they showed a new dimension in what ultimately may turn out to be a big win for this team in the long run.

The Buchanan show arrives for Canada:

His first goal was excellent. His second goal was even better. 

In his debut for Canada at all levels of National Team play, Tajon Buchanan shot onto the scene in a big way in this one, scoring 2 goals in the first half to give Canada the early lead. 

And it wasn’t so much the fact that he scored the goals, but instead how he scored them, as he showed his full complement of talents with each effort. 

On the first goal, he made a bursting run onto the end of a Ballou Tabla pass, then took on an El Salvador defender, feinting inside before bursting back to the outside, and then finished by sliding the ball through the goalkeeper into the bottom corner to give Canada the lead. 

Later, he stood unaccompanied at the top of the box off of a corner, before squaring up perfectly to a Derek Cornelius cut back after the original cross was cleared out, picking out the bottom corner with style despite having a few defenders standing in his way in an attempt to block his shot. 

With reports coming out from MLS’s Tom Bogert on Friday morning that some European teams were keeping a close eye on his play in this tournament, you just wondered how he’d react to that sort of pressure in this game. 

Let’s just say he rose to the occasion, and then some. 

But while the goals will steal all of the headlines, an underrated part of Buchanan’s performance was all of the dirty work that he did for Canada off of the ball, as he was very involved defensively in this one.

All the way through to the 90th minute, Buchanan found a way to track back every time Canada lost the ball, which allowed him to finish with 4 tackles, 2nd-best on this Canadian team. 

That’s exactly the sort of thing that you want to see from him, as the goals will get him noticed, but that sort of hard work will really stand out to coaches, especially if he’s able to leverage this sort of play into a big move abroad. 

You can certainly count head coach Mauro Biello in as a fan, that’s for sure. 

“It was an excellent performance,” Biello said after the game. ‘Everybody will see the two goals, but coaches will look at the work that he does and the way he tracked back and the 90th minute for me was quite impressive.”

“It’s a player that’s just growing, he had a good season last year in New England, came into camp with us, with the men’s team in January, showed his qualities and now today he was focused to show what he could do and he was able to get those two great goals. And again, the work that he puts in for the team is excellent.”

Defensive work aside, Canada won’t complain if he continues to find himself in the goals, however. 

In this sort of tournament, these tallies can go a long way towards a team’s success, so Canada will be counting on him to keep up this strong run of form. 

If he does, he could prove to be a key difference-maker on this team’s quest to break their lengthy Olympic drought. 

There are always some players who seem to find a way to catch lightning in a bottle at these sorts of tournaments, so why can’t Buchanan do that for Canada in this one? 

Given his rise to get to this spot, you certainly wouldn’t put it past him doing that, keeping up this run in the process. 

Tactical philosophy continues to trickle down to all levels: 

A long-promised goal of John Herdman’s when he was hired as coach of the Men’s National Team was to develop an identity for Canada at every level of the men’s program, with the idea being that if they did that, they’d be able to better transition players up through the ranks as they got older. 

And so far, it appears they’re starting to succeed in that plan. This was only one game, but the U23 team did a good job at mimicking their senior counterparts versus El Salvador, and although it helps that there are several senior team players playing for them this tournament, it was still good to see. 

When diving into the nuance of those tactics, Canada did a lot of interesting things during this match, as they did a good job of sticking to their principles throughout the 90 minutes. 

Defensively, they pressed in a 4-4-2, sending two players forward, leaving the two banks of four to sit back and absorb pressure. It allowed them to keep El Salvador to the outside, for the most part, and when their opponents did cut inside, Canada’s back 4 was there to mop up the danger. 

Plus, as the game moved along, it forced El Salvador to start taking shots from the outside, much to the pleasure of Canada. Either they’d blast the ball well over, and in the few instances that they found the target, James Pantemis was more than up to the task in the Canadian goal, finishing with 5 saves. 

Overall, it was a strong shift from them in that area, as they did well to stay compact and limit the space between their lines, which is something that should lend them well in their coming games. 

They could still find a way to press higher up the field, allowing them to dictate the game a bit more defensively, but that’s always difficult to do in the heat, so as Biello spoke about after the game, the focus will continue to be on closing down those lines defensively as much as possible. 

“Defensively, I think we worked on our shape and then we knew that it would be difficult to high press in this type of weather,” Biello said. “So it was important for us to keep that medium block, but once they come over that line it’s about being aggressive and closing those spaces and I think they did a good job. We were able to close the spaces between the lines, it’s a team that likes to operate in between the lines and overload, and I think we managed that in the right way.”

Offensively, Canada rotated between a 4-3-3 and a 3-4-3, depending on where Michael Baldisimo found himself on the pitch, as they were very flexible in possession.

They did their best at trying to play out of the back whenever possible, sometimes almost dangerously so, but when they were successful, they found some of their best chances of the game. 

Considering it’s their first game of the tournament, you’ll excuse their sloppiness in that area at times, but as Biello said after the game, they’re going to continue working at it in their other matches.

“We’ve had one and a half sessions of building out of the back,” Biello said. “And there were some bumps there. I think we’re going to continue to improve that. We’re going to work on some video and get it right, get our distances right, get our timing right.

In the second half, El Salvador’s press started to wear them down a bit, but it also allowed Canada to find a bit more joy in transition when they broke through it, as they found some great chances in the second half via that avenue. 

From there, they showed an area of their game not seen too often from them in this sort of tournament – composure. Too often, it’s easy to lose your head when either leading or trailing, making it harder to grab a result. 

On Friday, Canada showed immense professionalism, allowing them to close out the match without too much worry, something that many fans certainly weren’t expecting them to do based on the struggles that past iterations of this Canadian team have had in that area of their game. 

If they can continue to do that the rest of this tournament, that may be the sort of thing we’ll want to see carry over to the senior level, more than anything they’ll do down in Mexico.

It’s not easy to manage the ‘CONCACAF-itis’, as it’s more famously known, so this could be a big sign of the sorts of philosophical changes Canada are trying to implement at all age levels.

Midfield puts in a shift: 

A big key to Canada’s success at managing the game on Friday?

The play of their midfield. 

Their three starters in midfield, Patrick Metcalfe, Michael Baldisimo and Aidan Daniels, combined for 8 tackles and 4 interceptions/aerial duels won on Friday, allowing them to control the park defensively versus El Salvador.

They didn’t influence the game as much as they would’ve wanted to offensively, at least aside from a few moments of individual brilliance from Baldisimo, as well as some flashes from Daniels, but seeing that they got the early goals that they needed, that wasn’t too much of a worry. 

In these upcoming games, you’d like to see them contribute a bit more in that area, but as Biello said after the match, he was overall quite pleased with how they performed as a group. 

“Yeah, I would agree with that assessment,” Biello when asked about his midfield’s strong play defensively. “I thought they did a good job, Patrick Metcalfe in the midfield, Baldisimo, they did a good job of closing things down.”

But at the same time, he is still hoping for them to continue to find their legs offensively, as that will go a long way towards them being able to create more sustainable chances, instead of just relying on individual moments of Buchanan brilliance. 

“But for sure, when I talk about that rhythm, and just getting their legs, it’s still gonna come,” Biello continued. “We still got to be able to now find those little gaps and exploit them in the midfield, we want to be able to attract them to eliminate them.”

“And today we did it in some moments, there were some good sequences, I showed some clips to them at halftime. But like I said, it’s going to take a bit more time for this group to continue to find that rhythm, but definitely from a defensive standpoint, they put in a hell of a shift.”

As he mentioned earlier, it’s still early days here, so there’s time for them to work on it, and considering that none of his three starters had played games in over 4 months, the best is still to come for them. 

Godinho with a big bounceback game:

Elsewhere on the pitch, there was arguably no bigger standout than Marcus Godinho, who was excellent in his return to action for Canada after a lengthy absence from National Team action. 

With his last appearance for Canada coming in that tough outing against Haiti at the 2019 Gold Cup, in which he played a big role in Canada’s collapse from up 2-0 to down 3-2, there were a lot of worried fans when it was announced that he was starting this game.

He quickly put those thoughts to rest in this game, though, as he quickly emerged as one of Canada’s top performers as the game rolled on. 

Versus El Salvador, he put up 4 tackles and 5 interceptions/aerial duels won, giving him the most won defensive actions of all Canadian players, as he was everywhere for Canada defensively in this one. 

At the other end of the pitch, he chipped in with 1 key pass and 1 shot, as he did well to get forward whenever possible. 

With Canada having options at full back, it wasn’t sure where he stood in Canada’s plans heading into this tournament, but after this performance, it’ll be hard to keep him out of the squad at this rate. 

Rotation on the horizon? 

But while it’ll be hard to take Godinho out of the lineup based on his form, something that may conspire against him and the rest of his teammates that started on Friday is the quick turnaround between games, as Canada will have to get right back into the swing of things with a game on Monday. 

With the intense Guadalajaran heat, as well as the short preparation time that Canada has had heading into this tournament, rotation is going to be key in that game. 

Seeing that Canada has already seen 2 players get injured before Friday’s game even kicked off, with Kris Twardek and Thomas Meilleur-Giguère having to drop out of the tournament with knocks, they’re going to have to be really careful in terms of how they manage these players minutes in the next game. 

Against a Haiti team dealing with all sorts of administrative issues, forcing them to play shorthanded in their first game against Honduras, Canada could be tempted to rotate heavily, allowing their squad to remain fresh ahead of their other games. 

You do wonder if that could come back to bite them if they did that, though, but considering the depth that they have at their disposal, they should be able to keep some players fresh over the next few matches.

The goal has to be to beat Haiti on Monday, allowing Canada to be all but qualified for the last round heading into their 3rd game against Honduras, but they’ll also need to make sure they don’t run any players into the ground before then. 


To finish things off, here are some stats that we tracked during this game, giving a better idea of which Canadian players were more involved on Friday. 

PlayerSavesGoalsAssistKey PassTacklesInterceptions/Aerial Duels wonBlocks
Norman Jr131

Looking Forward: 

So now, Canada will have two days of rest before taking on Haiti on Monday, where they’ll have a chance to pick up a massive 3 points in their quest to finish atop the group. 

It won’t be an easy game, as Haiti is a team that will battle hard no matter how many players they end up having at their disposal, which they showed against Honduras despite being short several players. 

If Canada continues to play at their best, they should be the favourites heading into that one, but as fans of this program know, it’s important that Canada don’t get too overconfident ahead of this game, as that could come back to bite them. 

But if they keep up the sort of play that they showed against El Salvador in this game, they should be alright, so hopefully they can continue to do that on Monday. 

As they continue their quest to put 37 years of failed Olympic history behind them, it’ll be a great opportunity to put themselves in a great position ahead of the bigger games that await them at this tournament. 

It won’t be easy, but given the recent rise they’ve seen at different levels in this program, they’ll be confident in their chances of doing so. 

Up Next: Canada vs Haiti, Monday, March 22nd, 2021, 15:00 PDT, 18:00 EDT (Guadalajara, Mexico) 

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer

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