Saturday's men's U-23 Olympic soccer qualifying match between Canada and the United States in Nashville, Tennessee had every indication of being a mismatch. It was, but in an unexpected direction; the Canadians came away with an incredible 2-0 victory against the heavily-favoured Americans, and they did so in hostile territory. There's a lot of soccer still to play yet before the final Olympic berths are determined, but this result sets up a potential game-changing combination that would have been unthinkable before the tournament; Canada could possibly earn a berth in London this summer, and the U.S. might not.
As Sportsnet analyst Craig Forrest pointed out afterwards, this victory is historic not just in the sense of the Olympic team, but in the wider background of Canadian soccer.
"What a result. What a performance by Canada," Forrest said. "This is one of the best results I can ever remember against the United States at any level."
Sportsnet commentator Gerry Dobson added that the implications of this one were almost completely unexpected, too.
"I don't think we'd ever thought of being here talking at the end of this game about the Americans possibly being out of this tournament," Dobson said.
As Dobson said, there really wasn't a lot to suggest that this one boded well for the Canadians. There have been many promising moves on the academy front, and lots of talent is starting to come up through the ranks, but the early results in this competition were subpar. The team started the tournament with an uninspiring 0-0 draw against El Salvador Thursday, one where they only recorded six shots and left observers like Winnipeg Free Press soccer columnist Jerrad Peters searching for answers about what was wrong with the team. Meanwhile, the favoured Americans, featuring stars such as Brek Shea and Freddy Adu, romped to a 6-0 victory over Cuba in their own opener.
Furthermore, the Canadians were never a lock for a berth heading into this tournament, as there are only two berths available for all the North American, Central American and Caribbean countries. The Canadian men's side also is nowhere near as dominant within CONCACAF as the women (who qualified for London earlier this year); FIFA doesn't produce world rankings for the U-23 level, but at the full international level of men's soccer, Canada is ranked 79th overall and ninth in CONCACAF. Canada also hasn't qualified for the Olympics in men's soccer since 1984 in Los Angeles, long before these current players were born. Given their lacklustre start to the tournament, there was a sense heading into Saturday's match that the Canadian team would be very lucky to emerge with a draw against the mighty home side and keep their qualifying hopes somewhat alive.
That wasn't how it played out, though. The Canadians battled the U.S. hard through a scoreless first half and then took the lead in the 58th minute when Toronto FC defender Doniel Henry escaped his marker and headed home a cross from former Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Philippe Davies. It was a deserved goal, as Canada had outshot the U.S. 8-3 at that point, but it was uncertain if it would hold up. The Americans poured on the pressure and forced FC Edmonton keeper Michal Misiewicz to make several outstanding saves, including one on Adu in the 65th minute. Lucas Cavallini added some much-needed insurance in the 83rd minute, though, and that was more than enough to let the Canadians hang on for an improbable victory.
Afterwards, Cavallini said the game was a huge result for Canada, particularly considering how it came on American soil.
"It's a big victory for us, winning in the States especially," he said. "I'm happy for the goal, I'm happy for my family, I'm happy for our country winning here."
While this win is a tremendous moment for Canadian soccer, and one indicative of the promising moves being made in developing young talent (and particularly the professional teams' academy systems; many of the players on the pitch Saturday had current or former affiliations with Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Montreal Impact or FC Edmonton), it's still too soon to book the tickets to London. Canada's now tied with El Salvador for first in the group (second on goal-differential) and would advance to the semifinals if the tournament ended here, but that isn't necessarily a recipe for automatic success. Group B is led by two powerhouses in Mexico and Honduras, and neither would be an easy opponent to beat. Making it to the semifinals is nice, but you have to win there to clinch an Olympic berth.
Before even that, however, the team still has one more game to play Monday night against Cuba (6:30 p.m. Eastern, Sportsnet). That won't be all that easy, especially considering that star midfielder Randy Edwini-Bonsu picked up a red card for dissent late in this match and will miss that game. However, there are some things in their favour: the Canadians have four points already to the Americans' three, a victory Monday would be enough to get them into the knockout stage regardless of what happens in the U.S.-El Salvador game and the Cubans have been outscored 10-0 in two games so far. Anything can happen on any particular day in soccer, though, and this result is clear proof of that. This is a great step for Canadian soccer, but there's still a long way to go.