Mexico Again: Canada finds itself in familiar position after a mixed group stage performance at CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifiers

Canadian soccer found itself in a familiar position when the referee blew the final whistle in Jalisco, Mexico, on Thursday night after a clash between Canada and Honduras. 

Once again, Canada’s U23 men’s national team had failed to win their group at the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament. 

For the third tournament in a row, Canada will play against Mexico for a spot in the Olympics. 

Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Honduras was lacklustre, undriven, and seldom looked urgent from a Canadian perspective. Only a few minutes pushed heart rates above resting. Spiking when Derek Corneilius’s blistering header opened the scoring and brought right back down with Denil Maldonado’s grazing set-piece to level the match.  

Within a few minutes, Canada’s soccer community went from a hope and a chance of playing the United States, a winnable game for Canada, to facing the stark reality of playing a Mexico team that is in another tier. 

This tournament was supposed to be different. For once, even with the absences of Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David,  Canada has a strong U23 team. There was no “Unattached F.C.” this year. Caleb Clarke, who featured on the 2015 side, is now playing men’s league in Vancouver, and only five from the 2012 roster are in the current senior national team picture.

This Canadian U23 side is better, and it was supposed to be different, yet here we are; a semi-final against Mexico. 

The Mexicans are a familiar foe for Canada at the Olympic qualifying level, playing the Canadians the last two times in the semis and winning each match for a spot at the London and Rio Olympics.

At the outset of the tournament, Canada’s goal was to win the group. “Avoid the Mexicans until the final” seemed like a national mantra throughout the soccer community. Midfielder David Norman Jr. and the rest of the team held a similar thought,  “Coming into today, we wanted to win the game and win the group; we fell short of that,” he said post-match. 

An opening match win against El Salvador made it possible, and Tajon Buchanan’s brace made it appear that Canada had another young star to lean on. 

While Canada took the 2-0 victory over El Salvador, the other two teams in the group encountered a challenge that you would have never thought about in the past. 

Only part of Haiti’s squad arrived for their required COVID-19 testing before the match, and the group that did not go lacked results at kickoff. Haiti had to play shorthanded and with a centre-back as the goalkeeper for the first half-hour. Honduras scored three goals, giving them a leg up on the eventual tiebreaker between them and Canada.

It all feels just so “Canada Soccer,” doesn’t it? Or maybe “CONCACAF’d?”

From dodgy refereeing decisions to blown leads and a morale-crushing 8-1 loss in World Cup qualifying, the maple sap that drips from Quebec’s trees is a lot sweeter than Canada’s recent history in international soccer. 

Positives and Looking Ahead

While the team did not achieve the goal of winning the group, there were still positives from this group stage. Before conceding to Honduras, Canada, backstopped by CF Montreal’s James Pantemis, had only posted clean sheets and looked organized throughout the pitch.  

“This (Playing Mexico) will be a big challenge for us, but the way this team has been fighting, the way this team has been playing defensively, we haven’t given up a goal in the run of play in the tournament,  I think we can build off stuff like that,” Canadian Head Coach Mauro Biello said post-game.

Pantemis played the 2020 season with Valour FC of the Canadian Premier League. Alongside Mo Farsi, Diyaeddine Abzi, and David Norman Jr., the four highlighted the impact of the CPL on the national level. 

Canada did not achieve their potential in the Olympic qualifiers’ group stage, but not all is lost. There is still one match, and if this Canadian team is indeed different, it may go differently than in the past. 

Although history is not on the side of the men from the north, once the match starts, it’s just a ball, a field and 22 guys trying to win a silly little game. 

So in 2021, why not Canada?

“It’s one game, so for us, it’s about being focused on what we can do,” said Biello. “What we’re going to work on is the belief that we can get this done.”

Mauro Biello, Head Coach Canada U23

Cover Photo: Canada Soccer

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