Not All Bad: Analyzing what Canada Soccer’s Men’s National U23 team can take away from their performance at Olympic qualifiers

It was a tough CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament for Canada’s Men’s National U23 Team down in Mexico, as they came up short against the hosts in a decisive semi-final. Here’s how despite that negative result, they still have a few positive things to take away from the games they played at this tournament.

After a positive start to the tournament, things didn’t end the way they would’ve liked them to.

It’s been a few days now since Canada Soccer’s Men’s National U23 team lost to Mexico in the semi-finals of CONCACAF’s Olympic Qualifying tournament, denying them a chance to participate in the Olympics this summer, but the pain still lingers. 

Having entered the tournament with aspirations of breaking a 37-year Olympic drought, it was hoped that they could do some damage down in Mexico, led by one of their strongest teams that they’ve sent to this U23 competition in recent memory. Instead, they were just unable to overcome tournament favourites and hosts, Mexico, in the crucial “win and you’re in” semi-final. 

Even more frustrating for Canada is that they could’ve avoided Mexico in that game, as they had every chance to win their group, drawing games with Haiti and Honduras, missing out on top spot to Honduras on goal difference. Seeing that Honduras handily dispatched the US 2-0 in the other semi-final, getting them to the Olympics along with Mexico, you do wonder what Canada could’ve done in a game against their southern neighbours. 

Considering that Honduras built their goal tally in an opening-game matchup with a Haitian team that started the game without a goalkeeper due to administrative issues, putting them one goal ahead of the Canadians, you also do wonder what could’ve happened if Honduras played a full-strength Haitian team. 

But there’s no point in leaning into hypotheticals – Canada had a chance to beat Mexico, and they weren’t able to do so. They played well and battled hard, but just couldn’t get over the hump at the right time, allowing Mexico to cruise to their third straight Olympic qualification. 

Despite that, however, this tournament was far from a failed experience for Canada. They may have failed in their main objective – making the Olympics, but they did see some positive performances from a team that had barely played together before this tournament. 

“I think there was a lot of positives,” Canada’s head coach, Mauro Biello said after the Mexico loss. “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”

So even though they came up short from a global perspective, they did learn a lot about themselves during this short tournament, giving Biello, who’s also an assistant coach on the senior team, plenty to ponder ahead of briefings with his senior boss, John Herdman. 

For a tournament where the end goal was about winning, there’s still plenty to derive from it in terms of individual and team performance, which could prove to be beneficial to Canada’s senior team in the long run.

Pathway to the first team:

And that was a big theme this tournament – finding a way to connect this U23 team to the senior team as much as possible. 

Obviously, Biello played a big role in that from a coaching perspective, but even having the likes of Derek Cornelius, Zachary Brault-Guillard, Marcus Godinho and James Pantemis at the back gave Canada a couple of players familiar with the senior team set-up as pillars to lean on. 

Ultimately, while the goal is to win, the idea behind having youth teams is to use them to graduate players to your senior team, something that Canada hasn’t always done proficiently in the past. 

So for Canada, they’ll hope that this tournament allows several players to move up to the senior team on a consistent basis, starting with the team’s next camp in June, when they’ll reconvene for the second half of the first round of World Cup qualifiers. 

Just looking at Canada’s last Olympic qualifying team, as an example, only 3 players on that 20-man squad are what you can consider regulars on the senior team now, and those are Maxime Crepeau, Mark Anthony Kaye and Samuel Piette. 

On this team, that number should be eclipsed soon, as someone like Derek Cornelius is already a full-blown senior team regular with 13 caps, while the likes of Zachary-Brault Guillard, Marcus Godinho, James Pantemis, Tajon Buchanan, Michael Baldisimo, Tajon Buchanan, Theo Bair, Lucas Dias and David Norman Jr all seem to be on the cusp of joining him at some point or another, form depending. 

To be fair, it’s easy to fall into the trap of overrating each youth generation, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel like a big reach to imagine at least 4 of those players becoming National Team regulars, and there’s still 10 other players that weren’t mentioned who aren’t done developing that could still join them. 

Plus, there’s one thing that’s changed this tournament that may allow that to be possible – the streamlining of tactics down from the first team. It’s something that Herdman has long talked about, and we saw that in this tournament, as Canada did what they could to mimic their senior counterparts. 

That meant defending in two blocks of 4, building out of the back and attacking in a fluid 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 formation depending on the sequence and opponent, which are some of the things we’ve seen from the senior team in recent games. 

It’s now been 3 years since Herdman was hired as senior coach, so there hasn’t been much time to actually see that streamlining in action at the youth level, especially considering the lack of games that we’ve seen since the start of 2020 due to the pandemic, but seeing the U23’s implement several of his philosophies is interesting. 

Seeing that plenty of these players are either at the level required to play at the senior team, or aren’t far off of it, it meant that Herdman got to see several players audition for spots in his squad in a similar environment to the one that his team offers, which is as good as a preview as any for him. 

As seen at the end of our review of the Mexican game, there are a few players that put up good accounts of themselves in this tournament, so we won’t dive back into those names here, but it shows the long-term value that this competition may end up having for this Canadian team. 

It’s something we looked at in-depth before the tournament, as we mentioned that a lot of Canadian players were potentially on the cusp of earning senior team nods, so it was good to see them step up from an individual standpoint, making conversations for spots all the more interesting now. 

Given that the tactics were set-up for them to do just that, all while allowing them to compete as a team, that is certainly a positive worth extracting. 

Expectations vs Performance:

On the other hand, from a team perspective, there’s no sugarcoating it – this team fell short of expectations, at least if you look at this tournament from a global view. 

Yes, it was unrealistic to expect Canada to beat Mexico in that sort of semi-final, as Canada is still working towards being at the level required to consistently threaten them, but if we’re going to be honest, they probably shouldn’t have been in this game in the first place, and that’s because they should’ve won their group. 

To be fair, Honduras is a sleeper team in CONCACAF, as there’s a reason why they’ve made the Olympics 4 times in a row, but at the same time, Canada had every chance to finish ahead of them in the group. From a disappointing draw against Haiti to a whelming draw against Honduras in the final game, Canada had the chance to pick up 2 extra points in either of those two games, allowing them to top the group and face the US instead of Mexico. 

Who knows how a game like that would’ve gone, as it’s possible that the US gets up more for a game versus Canada than they do a game versus Honduras, but no matter what, that’s a match that Canada would be a lot more confident of their chances of winning in. 

It feels strange to place these sorts of expectations on a Canadian team that hasn’t made the Olympics in so long, but if Canada wants to be one of the top teams in CONCACAF, it’s only normal that they start finding a way to navigate through tournaments like this. 

There’s not a massive correlation between success in youth tournaments and the strength of the senior team, at least in terms of how great your senior team will be, but the better your youth team is, the higher the floor of the senior team tends to be. 

As Canada’s youth development gets better, that’ll raise the floor of the overall pool, but until then, they’ll find themselves on the cusp of taking a step forward in these sorts of tournaments. 

Based on what we’ve seen the senior team do in recent years, it does feel like we’re due a breakout at one of the youth levels, so it’s only normal to continue to have high expectations of teams in these tournaments, at the same time. 

Until Canada breaks its drought in the Olympics and the U20 World Cup, which extends back 14 years and counting now, it may feel like a fruitless exercise, but considering that the U17s made the 2019 U17 World Cup, their first tournament since 2013, maybe that’s just the start of what’s to come. 

You just feel like Canada truly has the talent to make more noise in these sorts of tournaments, but they’ve got to find a way to maximize their potential, much like some of their CONCACAF neighbours have done for decades now. 

Canada’s Ballou Tabla in action versus Mexico (Canada Soccer/MexSport)

3 individual player storylines:

But while a lot will be made about the team’s performance as a whole in the long-term, it’s worth focusing on some of the individual performances that stood out down in Mexico, because as mentioned earlier, it’s possible that we see some of these players join the senior team later this year.

Here are some individual storylines worth highlighting. 

Derek Cornelius is a rock, but keep an eye on David Norman Jr:

It was a massive surprise to see Cornelius at this tournament, as he has arguably already established himself as Canada’s best centre back at all levels, but as a U23-eligible player, Canada made sure to secure his services to give them a boost at this tournament. 

And what a boost did he ever give, as he was Canada’s rock at both ends of the pitch during the group stages. He did his job defensively, keeping 2 clean sheets in 3 games, while preventing opponents from scoring a single open-play goal, but he also chipped in offensively, adding a goal and an assist. 

He gave Canada a leader to help steer the ship, wearing the armband in all 3 games, and showing why many Vancouver Whitecaps fans have been calling for more minutes for the Canadian at the club level. 

There’s no coincidence that Canada conceded two tough goals against Mexico in the semi-finals, as Cornelius was injured for that game after picking up a knock against Honduras in the final match of the group stages, as the team seemed to miss his presence there. 

That put a sour note on his tournament, through no fault of his own, as you do wonder what could’ve happened if he played, but if you’re to judge his play based on what he did when he did play, you have to be happy. With 4 tackles, 18 interceptions/aerial duels won and 3 blocks, he was an absolute brick wall at the back for Canada. 

For posterity’s sake, here’s Cornelius doing what he does best versus Haiti, defending his goal.

But while Cornelius was expected to be a star, he quickly had a surprising face grow into a role playing alongside him, and it was someone who wasn’t even supposed to play at centre back going into this tournament, and that’s David Norman Jr. 

Having last played competitively back in 2019, no one knew what to expect from him in this Canadian squad, but called into action against El Salvador after an injury to Callum Montgomery, he proved to be immense for Canada in the rest of their games. 

With 6 tackles, 17 interceptions/aerial duels won and 4 blocks, Norman Jr wasn’t scared to sacrifice himself defensively, proving to be a solid partner for Cornelius. Thanks to their play, they managed to keep the defensive record that they did, and while Cornelius will rightfully earn a lot of the plaudits, Norman Jr also had a big part to play in that, as well. 

Just as an example, here’s him turning defence into offence, too, showing how valuable his contributions proved to be at times for Canada.

Now, it’ll be interesting to see what happens for him at the club level, as he made a move to Cavalry FC in the Canadian Premier League this year, putting him back in a league that he looked really good in when on loan to Pacific FC back in 2019. 

On a Cavalry team that has been one of the league’s best teams through its first two seasons, playing a famous 3-4-3, there’s a spot for him to slide into Tommy Wheeldon Jr’s system as a centre back. 

Seeing what he did at the position here, and seeing Canada’s thin depth chart at CB, that could prove to be a move that benefits both Cavalry and Norman Jr, making it a win-win proposition. 

You do wonder if he’ll miss playing his preferred midfield role, but as he said at the end of the tournament, centre back is a position he’s more than happy to continue and learn more about. 

“I really enjoy it, I’ve got the qualities to be a quality centre back at this level,” Norman Jr told reporters after the Mexico game. 

Tajon Buchanan provides plenty of intrigue:

Further up the pitch, we’ve got the player who made the most headlines heading into this tournament, Tajon Buchanan, and he mostly lived up to them over the course of the 4 games that he played. 

He’ll feel frustrated that he failed to build off of a strong start to the tournament, as his only 2 goals came in the first 30 minutes of Canada’s opening game, but at the same time, that wasn’t due to a lack of trying. 

Among Canadian forwards, he was probably the most involved throughout this tournament, making things happen on both sides of the ball. 

He chipped in offensively with his 2 goals and 4 key passes, a few of which should’ve been assists had it not been for Ballou Tabla’s tough luck in front of goal, but he also got stuck in defensively, finishing 3rd on the team with 8 tackles. 

As we saw after Canada’s opener, that’s something that he’s known for, showing that he knows how to influence games in other ways than just scoring goals and taking on defenders. 

There were a few moments of concern, as Buchanan was often double and triple-teamed out of games after the El Salvador match, but that’s just what tends to happen to dynamic players, and to give credit to him, he still found some good chances despite that. 

Here’s an example of him taking advantage of space in transition versus Haiti, nearly winning Canada the game right at the death.

When he gets into space, he’s just so tough to defend, and that’s something he showed on his first goal of the tournament, where he left an El Salvadoran defender for dead before slotting home his chance. 

Again, he didn’t get much of an opportunity to do that after that game, but that was more due to Canada’s inability to consistently progress the ball to their forwards than it was Buchanan’s work rate. 

So expect him to join Canada’s senior team in June, especially after he did so well to show why many were calling him to earn a nod this month, as he continues his meteoric rise. Given that Canada’s winger depth pool isn’t actually all that deep, Buchanan is ready to earn a nod to the senior team ASAP, and we’ll probably see that rectified in the next international window. 

Plus, with there being supposed European interest in him, as several scouts were reportedly there to watch him play this tournament, you feel like there’s still a lot more to come from him in the future, so keep an eye on him. 

Patrick Metcalfe/Michael Baldisimo pairing does well:

Lastly, it’s worth noting the herculean effort of Whitecaps teammates, Baldisimo and Metcalfe, in midfield, as they single-handedly turned it from an area of weakness to an area of strength with their play. 

Obviously, they weren’t enough to mask the fact that Biello just didn’t have enough bodies in midfield, something that should’ve been addressed by bringing in a CPL player such as Noah Verhoeven once TFC’s COVID outbreak happened, but they still excelled in their roles. 

Starting with Baldisimo, he lived up to the lofty expectations placed on him heading into this tournament, showing why those who’d seen him play in 2020 with the Whitecaps were so high on him before this.

His ability to progress the ball is mesmerizing, as his passing range is second-to-none on most teams he plays on, but he showed a different edge to his game in this tournament in terms of his ability to dribble through pressure and shrug off defenders. He’s obviously quite stocky and well-built despite being a little shorter, but he rarely used those physical tools in MLS last year, instead just relying on his skill to beat defenders. 

For Canada, though, he wasn’t shy in terms of baiting contact and opening up space for himself, which was quite interesting to see, as he was actually really good at doing that. For someone who was already clever enough to open up passing lanes with deceptive hip and eye movement, adding that to his game just gives him another weapon in his arsenal to use, making him even more dangerous as a ball-progressing midfield. 

Here’s an example of that from the Haiti game, as he uses his strength to win a battle, before making a beautiful progressive pass after a deceptive body feint, helping create a dangerous chance for Canada.

He still really enjoyed making a progressive pass, though, but to be fair, that’s always been his bread-and-butter.

With 4 key passes, he was tied with the team-lead in that stat with Buchanan, showing his involvement offensively, despite having to do a lot of heavy-lifting as Canada’s #6. That’s reflected in his impressive 15 tackles and 14 interceptions/duels won, giving a team-leading 29 defensive actions. 

He showed exactly why many have been calling for the Whitecaps to give him a healthy dose of minutes in 2020, and it’s going to be hard for them to deny him of that if he keeps playing like this. 

But no matter how well he played this tournament, he was always going to factor into the Whitecaps plans this year. Metcalfe didn’t have that same luxury, however, as he was arguably actually a candidate to be sent out on loan before the season starts. 

That conversation is going to be a lot more difficult after his play in Mexico, however, as he emerged as a rock for Canada at the #8 position, playing every single minute of the tournament, making him one of only two Canadian outfield players to do that (the other was Godinho). 

Offensively, he chipped in with an assist, along with 2 key passes, but he did his best work defensively, racking up 10 tackles and 10 interceptions/aerial duels won. 

And what was most impressive about his play wasn’t his output, but just his confidence, as he looked like a player who knew he belonged on the field. For the small cameos he got for the Whitecaps in 2020, he lacked that confidence at times, making minutes hard to come by for him. 

Just look at this sequence versus Haiti, as an example. He brings down a ball wonderfully, before making a superb progressive pass to Charles Andreas Brym, who loses possession. Metcalfe then wins the ball back, getting the ball up the field to help Canada generate offence.

Here’s another example of that confidence versus El Salvador, as he takes out multiple defenders with his dribbling before making a progressive pass, one that leads to Canada’s opener in that game.

If he keeps up this sort of swagger for the Whitecaps, it’s going be hard for head coach Marc Dos Santos to avoid playing him. 

So from that perspective, you do wonder if this potentially impacts plans to loan him out to a CPL team, as you would’ve likely imagined was the plan before this. With the CPL not starting until May/June, do you keep him for the start of the season, seeing if he continues this play, before making a decision a few weeks into the year? 

No idea if the ‘Caps would consider doing that, but based on his play at this tournament, you certainly hope they at least try to. 

He may not be as close to the National Team conversation as Baldisimo is, but as he showed in Mexico, he’s just an example of Canada’s improving depth at the midfield position, so he could possibly be a name to keep at the back of mind ahead of the Gold Cup, which will likely be made up of a rotated squad. 

To help his cause, he’ll need to play regularly, but he got a good head start in a race towards doing that here. 

Looking Forward:

But all in all, it was a fascinating tournament for Canada, for a myriad of reasons. There’s a negative aspect, obviously, as you would’ve wanted to see them make the big dance, but on the other hand, there were a lot of positives to dissect in the 4 games that they played down in Mexico. 

Ultimately, you would’ve liked to see them find a way to get the job done, but this was always going to be a great audition no matter what happened, and a few players stepped up to the plate. 

Plus, we saw Canada try out a few tactics seen at the senior level, showing their desire to streamline their identity across different levels, so hopefully that’s something we see more of in future youth tournaments. 

It’s too early to know if that’ll help Canada get the sort of success that has proven elusive in those sorts of competitions, but as we saw, just having that mentality should help Canada out at the senior level. 

For a team putting all its eggs in the “making the 2022 World Cup” and “doing some damage at the 2026 World Cup” baskets, that’s most likely their end goal, anyways. 

So from that perspective, they took strides forward in that regard here, helping them stomach the pain of a gut-punching final result. 

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/MexSport

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