The Dream Dies: CanM23’s fall 2-0 to Mexico in crucial CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament semi-final, extending lengthy Olympic drought

Canada’s Men’s U23 National Team narrowly fell to Mexico on Sunday, eliminating them from Olympic contention, extending their lengthy absence from that competition. Here’s what stood out from that game, as Canada fought hard, but just didn’t have enough to get the win needed to send them to Tokyo. 

Ultimately, the dream died right at the final sprint. 

With CONCACAF’s giants lying in front of them, Mexico, Canada’s Men’s National U23 team had a chance to make history, as they would’ve qualified to the Olympics for the first time in 37 years with a win on Sunday.

It wasn’t meant to be, however, as two second-half goals were all Mexico would need to dispatch Canada, allowing them to book a spot in their 3rd consecutive Olympic tournament. 

For Canada, it was an expected yet frustrating result, as they once again couldn’t find a way to break through a Mexico team that has long bullied many other CONCACAF nations, Canada included. 

Canada did have their chances to win, as they kept Mexico at bay until the 55th minute, but then a tough James Pantemis error gifted Mexico an opening goal in the 57th minute, and that would be all Mexico needed to cruise to a victory, adding a second goal along the way in the 64th minute for good measure. 

That now leaves Canada to lick their wounds and ponder what could’ve been for them down in Mexico, as it truly felt like they had a good chance to reverse their recent fortunes at Olympic qualifying tournaments. 

But alas, draws to Haiti and Honduras in the group stages loomed large, as they ultimately missed a chance to finish first in their group by goal difference, which would’ve given them a much more favourable matchup against the US, who fell to Honduras earlier on Sunday, allowing Los Catrachos to reach a 4th straight Olympics. 

They came closer than anyone may have expected against Mexico, to give them credit, but ultimately, that doesn’t change the final outcome, which is that Canada will have to content themselves with watching the Men’s soccer tournament at the Olympics from home. 

“Disappointment, frustration,” Canada’s David Norman Jr said of the emotions going through his head after the game. “We had a game plan that I think the first half went to script like we wanted to, we had belief across the group. We really thought this was going to be the year that we pushed Canada to the next level. And we had full belief that was going to happen. So disappointing, for sure.”

It’s not all doom and gloom for Canada, though. They battled hard in tough circumstances, which you’ll always be happy with. Plus, the senior team is still in the midst of what is hoped to be a long and fruitful World Cup qualifying campaign, something that several of these U23 Olympic hopefuls may end up contributing to down the road. 

That still doesn’t sting the short-term pain, however, and that’s something that they’ll have to deal with for the next few days, but this still feels like more of a blip on the radar in terms of what’s ahead for this Canadian National Team. 

Until we look ahead, though, it’s important to reflect back on how things went down, so here’s what stood out from Canada’s heartbreaking loss versus Mexico. 

Weathering the early storm: 

Heading into this game, Canada knew that if they were to have any chance at toppling Mexico, they’d need a strong start, allowing them to grow into the game. 

Mission accomplished. 

Through 45 minutes, they kept Mexico off of the scoreboard, and it started to wear on their opponents, who were starting to feel the frustration of not getting an early goal heading into half time. 

Tactically, Canada committed to sitting deep and absorbing pressure, and seeing how much their opponents struggled to impose themselves in the first half, they more than did their job. 

You always play with fire when parking the bus, but in a one-off game with all to play for, it was always going to be the right tactic for Canada to employ defensively, and it paid off early for them in this one. 

“Unfortunately, tonight we had a tall task in front of us, and I’m still very proud of the group for what they have accomplished in such a short period of time,” Canadian head coach Mauro Biello said after the game. “And obviously that was a very good Mexican team you saw there, those are the best Mexican U23s that we played tonight, and for us to be in the game for that amount of time and really managing them and frustrating them for a good period I think was very good.”

Got to keep it up, though: 

But while they defended for their lives in the first half, they just weren’t able to keep Mexico quiet for long enough in the second half, as an individual error cost them at a bad time. 

Unfortunately, James Pantemis, who was one of Canada’s best players all tournament, failed to make a routine pass out of the back, and Mexico pounced, as Uriel Antuna made no mistake with his opportunity in front of goal. 

What has to hurt most from a Canadian perspective is not the mistake itself, but how the goal just made an impossible task all the much harder, as Mexico all of a sudden got to grow into a game they were struggling to grow into up until that point, with the fact that the wound was self-inflicted only adding insult to injury. 

It was always going to be tough to keep Mexico at bay for 90 minutes, but the way it happened still had to hurt for Canada. After having done a good job at playing out of the back all tournament long, it came back to haunt them at the worst moment, something that they’ll be sure to lament when reflecting upon this tournament. 

“I mean today’s tactics, it was very clear to get the ball forward,” Biello said of the error. “ You saw that in the whole first half, unless they would back off to give us that space, then we could start our platforms and start building from there. (At other times), they were pressing at us fast, and it’s clear to get that ball up and get the team up, in that moment, the decision was taken (by Pantemis) to try to find time to split them. And unfortunately, he missed the pass, and they were able to hurt us.”

In a game like this, the score was always going to be decided by an individual mistake, as both teams were excellent defensively through the first 55 minutes, so for Canada to undo the hard work they did in the way they did had to hurt. 

The margins were always going to be fine, but despite that, you’d imagine that it’ll haunt Canada that the thread was cut by themselves, and not the opposition.  

Offence comes back to haunt them: 

Canadian coach Mauro Biello shouts instructions at his players vs Mexico (Canada Soccer/MexSport)

On the other hand, it would’ve been nice for Canada to not have to be overly dependent on their defence conceding zero goals to win – that was always going to be a near-impossible task against this Mexican team. 

Keeping them to one or two goals was realistic, however, but that would just mean that Canada would’ve had to get a goal or two of their own, and unfortunately, they just didn’t have the offensive juice to do that on Sunday. 

It’s one thing for Canada to bemoan their luck on the defensive side of things in this game, but the reality is with their offence only generating 3 shots through 90 minutes, none of them particularly threatening ones, and they were always going to struggle to win this game. 

You did worry about their lack of production offensively through the group stages heading into this game, as they went their last 240 minutes of group stage action without scoring from open play, but you hoped that they could find a way to fix things in this game. 

But much like in their last two and a half games, chances were too far and few between in this match, which for a Canadian team filled with potential offensive difference-makers, made it all the more frustrating to watch. 

To extract some positives, you do have to feel great about Canada’s defensive game, as it was a strength of theirs this tournament, something most people probably weren’t expecting considering their defensive struggles with the senior team. It shows that defending is as much about the system as it is about individual names, something the senior team is still figuring out. 

Despite that, though, Canada should’ve found a way to be more dangerous offensively, especially in transition, especially seeing some of the speed they had at their disposal. 

Too often, Canada’s offensive difference-makers didn’t get the ball into dangerous areas, failed to release the ball under pressure and often ran into trouble, making it hard for them to break down an organized Mexican defence. 

It wasn’t like Mexico had a defensive masterclass, but instead, it was more a case of Canada making it way too easy for them, and that showed at times. 

Had it just been a problem against Mexico, you could let it slide, but considering that it was an issue for most of the tournament, one has to wonder if Canada could’ve done a better job addressing it. 

Unfortunately, it felt like Canada sacrificed their offensive game for defensive solidity, when the two could’ve very well co-existed, instead of leaving them to rely on individual moments of magic to get them by. 

Against well-organized teams such as Mexico, individual brilliance can only do so much for you offensively, and that was backed up by the stats. 

With such short preparation time before these games, it was never going to be easy to work through something like that, but it would’ve been nice if Canada found a way to change things in time to make Olympic qualification possible 

The need for more preparation:

But if anything, this did also show how important preparation is in a tournament like this. 

Honduras’s U23s have been playing together for a while, as they had to qualify for this tournament through the Central American qualifying process. Mexico didn’t have to do the same, but these U23s were familiar with one another having played together before. 

For Canada, however, this was the first time that many of these players played together, and that showed at times. 

Starting now, it certainly could be a reason for them to start getting North-American players together yearly in the next Olympic cycle, allowing them to build up some familiarity ahead of 2024 qualifiers.

Every bit of preparation helps in a tournament like this, so no reason why they can’t at least build up a foundation of players born in 2001 and later, which should help them do some damage a few years down the line. 

The effort level was exemplary: 

But to shift to positives, you have to applaud Canada’s work ethic in this tournament, as their players fought to the bitter end, which was nice to see. 

Despite many of these players not knowing each other before these games, they battled hard for their teammates and for the Canadian flag, which is something for senior head coach John Herdman to consider when assessing the play of any potential call-ups who played in this tournament. 

Tactics can be changed, but players have to want to put themselves out there for their countries, and the Canadians did that on Sunday. 

Considering that some of these players might move up to the senior team soon, it was good to see that sort of desire, as that sort of fight will only translate well in the long-run. 

“I think there was a lot of positives,” Biello said. “When I think, yeah the end in mind from a performance standpoint you want to make it to the Olympics, but the end in mind in this program is having an alignment from the men’s national team all the way down.”

“And for me, it was to build a foundation with the group and graduate some of these players to move on to the men’s national team and I think that’s, that’s the end in mind with this organization. Yes, we’re disappointed, but there’s some good players that had some good performances out there”

Who might we see join Canada’s first team in June? 

Canada’s squad lines up for the national anthem ahead of their clash vs Mexico (Canada Soccer)

And to round things off, it’ll be interesting to see which players will be able to leverage this tournament into a call-up into the senior team as soon as June, where Canada will play two massive World Cup qualifiers. 

Derek Cornelius will obviously be there, and he only confirmed that with his big play for Canada down in Mexico, but a few of these players might join him. 

At full back, Marcus Godinho and Zachary Brault-Guillard put up solid shifts at their position despite seeing little rest, likely putting them in contention for Herdman’s squad. Having played for him in the past already, he’ll have been keeping a close eye on them here, and he should be relatively content with what he saw. 

Over at centre back, David Norman Jr could prove to be a dark horse candidate to make a Canadian team looking for players to step up at the centre back position. Despite being more of a #6, he stepped into the position nicely when Callum Montgomery went down injured in the first game, and ended up being one of Canada’s best players in the rest of the games. 

As he mentioned after the match, it’s a position he’s enjoyed, and from the likes of it, it sounds like he’ll play there for Cavalry this year. Considering that Herdman hasn’t been shy to turn to the CPL if a player is playing well, a strong start to the year could see Norman Jr in Canadian colours come June. 

Further up the field, Michael Baldisimo and Patrick Metcalfe were strong in midfield for Canada, and although the senior team is deep in the midfield, Herdman still should have space in his squad to give one of them a taste of being with the senior team. Obviously, Baldisimo is the more well-known quantity and the front-runner to earn a nod, and is probably expected to play more minutes with the Vancouver Whitecaps than Metcalfe as it stands, but if Metcalfe finds a way to keep playing as he did in this tournament at the club level, he could make the discussion interesting. 

Up front, Lucas Dias and Tajon Buchanan look like candidates to earn senior nods, as well. Buchanan was Canada’s star man this tournament, and although he didn’t finish as strongly as he would’ve liked, with teams making it their mission to keep him quiet after he started strong, he’s still got the skill to play with the senior team. 

Dias is the more interesting one to discuss, as he’s only played with Sporting CP’s U23 team to date, but as he showed in this tournament, he can play, and reports out of Portugal suggest that he isn’t far away from playing with Sporting’s first team, either. As a Portuguese dual-national, it may be hard to persuade him to commit full-time to Canada and cap-tie him in June, but considering Herdman gave a similar opportunity to Wolves’ youngster Theo Corbeanu this month, you wonder if he could do the same with Dias. 


Lastly, as we’ve done all tournament, here’s a chart with how Canada’s players performed statistically in this game. 

PlayerSavesGoalsAssistsKey PassTacklesInterceptions/Aerial Duels wonBlocks
Norman Jr25

And here’s the chart with their complete numbers from the tournament. 

PlayerSavesGoalsAssistsKey PassTacklesInterceptions/Aerial Duels wonBlocks
Norman Jr6174

Looking Forward: 

So now, it’ll all be about absorbing the pain of this result, before moving on and focusing on what lies ahead. 

The Olympic dream may now be dead again for the next 3 years, but many of these players still have big seasons in front of them, so look for them to use that as a chance to work into the Canadian fold on a more permanent basis. 

And as mentioned earlier, hopefully Canada can soon start the preparation for the 2024 Olympics, allowing them to stop their Olympic drought at 40 years. 

But until then, there’s a lot of soccer still to be played, so keep an eye on several of these players, who despite this blip on the radar, still have a lot to bring to the Canadian shirt in the long run. 

This wasn’t the way they wanted things to end, but if they can use this as motivation, allowing them to push to bigger and greater heights, then this game could prove to be useful in the long run. 

That doesn’t make it any less painful, though, so it’s okay if the players soak this one in a bit before moving on, but they still have a lot to be proud of despite the result. 

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer

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