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Canada soccer in difficult spot in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying after late Cuban goal

Marcus Haber (10) and his Canadian teammates were stunned by Cuba's late equalizer Monday.

For 90-plus minutes Monday night, the Canadian men's U-23 team did just enough to put themselves in good position heading into the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying semifinals. That wasn't quite sufficient, though, as Cuba's Maykel Reyes scored in the 91st minute, making the final score 1-1. The draw's enough to clinch a semifinal berth for Canada, but it also likely ensures that the Canadians will finish second in their group and have to play the top finisher in Group B, which probably means facing Mexico instead of Honduras. The Canadians will still get to play in the crucial semifinals, and they'll earn a trip to London this summer if they come out with a win, but their loss of focus late Monday means they'll probably play a tougher team and face even higher odds as a result.

This didn't look like the same Canadian team that pulled off a stunning upset of the Americans Saturday; instead, it looked even worse than the one that turned in a dismal showing in the opener against El Salvador. Perhaps they were still on an emotional high from that victory, perhaps they underestimated the Cubans (who had been outscored 10-0 in two games against the U.S. and El Salvador, and might just have had a player defect as well), perhaps they missed the influence of players like Randy Edwini-Bonsu (out thanks to a red card he picked up late against the Americans), but whatever the reason, they turned in a thoroughly underwhelming performance.

The lone Canadian goal, which came when Lucas Cavallini set up Evan James inside the box in the 25th minute, was a nice offensive display, but scoring chances were few and far between for Canada after that. Cuban keeper Odisnel Cooper was occasionally tested and made some solid saves, but by and large, the red-and-white squad seemed to be resting on their laurels and hoping one goal would be enough. For 90 minutes, it was, but the Cubans manufactured a goal in stoppage time off a free kick when the Canadian defence broke down, allowing Reyes to slip through and drive the ball home. It was almost a meaningless goal for the Cuban side, as they'll still finish last in the group and miss the Olympics, but it allowed them to head home on a positive note. Meanwhile, while the Canadians will be moving on, they've likely just made life much more difficult for themselves.

The full implications of Monday's result aren't known yet, as there are still a few important games to be played. The most crucial happen in Group B Tuesday, with Honduras taking on Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico facing Panama. The Mexicans sit at the top of that group with six points while the Hondurans have three, so even a draw would be enough to give Mexico the top seed in Group B. Mexico's also far enough ahead on goal differential (+9 to Honduras' -1) that they will likely finish top of the group even if they lose and Honduras wins. We don't know who the other team going through from Group A will be yet, as El Salvador and the U.S. are playing Monday night; if the Americans win, they're in, otherwise, El Salvador makes it. Whatever the result there, though, Canada will finish second in the group. That means the Canadians are most likely facing Mexico Saturday, and that's an extremely difficult proposition; the Mexican U-23 team is 2-0-0 so far at this tournament with 3-0 and 7-1 wins, and while there aren't rankings for the U-23 teams, their full international team is the top-ranked squad in CONCACAF at the moment. A victory against Cuba would have been enough to give Canada the top spot in the group with a U.S. win or a draw Monday night, but it wasn't to be. The Canadians still have a chance to make it to London, but their odds have gotten much steeper thanks to an unimpressive showing and a late moment of negligence Monday.

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