Canada sets sights on Haiti at CONCACAF men's Olympic soccer qualifier in Mexico

·4 min read

Born in 1999, winger Tajon Buchanan arrived 15 years after the Canadian men last qualified for the Olympic soccer tournament.

Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro have come and gone since.

With one win already at the CONCACAF Men's Olympic Qualifying Championship in Guadalajara, Buchanan and his young Canadian teammates are looking to end that drought. And while those failed qualification attempts have nothing to do with them, the past has not been forgotten.

"It's all about the history," Canada coach Mauro Biello told a virtual news conference Sunday. "It's all about the legacy that we leave behind. And that's been laid out to this group, about what they have the opportunity to achieve here.

"The Olympics, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's more than an event, it's a transformative experience. And I told the group that us as a group, us as a country, we have a shot at it."

Said Buchanan: "We know what's to play for at this tournament."

The 1984 Canadians made it to the quarterfinals at the L.A. Games, losing to Brazil on a penalty shootout.

As host nation, Canada had a men's team at the 1976 Games, failing to get out of the group stage. And Galt FC, representing Canada, won gold at the 1904 Games, which featured just three men's club teams.

There have been many reasons why the Canadian men have struggled at the Olympic level (which has featured under-23 players since 1992).

In the past, there were few places to nurture and develop talent at home. Many young players had to go overseas to pursue their soccer dream. Some managed to find teams in Europe but saw little playing time.

Talent in other CONCACAF countries, meanwhile, could rise up the ranks at home.

And with CONCACAF sending just two teams to the Olympics, getting past the likes of Mexico and the U.S. (five trips each to the Games since 1984) and Honduras (four trips) added to the degree of difficulty.

CONCACAF covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.

The eight-team Olympic qualifier in Mexico was originally scheduled for last March but was postponed due to the pandemic.

The Canadians, who beat El Salvador 2-0 Friday on Buchanan's brace, take on Haiti on Monday at Estadio Akron, which hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2011 Pan American Games.

The Haitians are coming off a bizarre 3-0 loss Friday to Honduras that saw them start with 10 men on the field including an outfield player in goal because part of its delegation arrived late in Guadalajara, impacting the timing of COVID-19 testing. The team got reinforcements during the match, including a goalkeeper, after tests came back negative.

Things went from bad to worse when Haiti defender Djimy Alexis was sent off in stoppage time for a second yellow card.

Biello expects the Haitians to be up for Monday's contest.

"The tournament is on the line for them," he said. "So we need to match that type of intensity."

Biello was awaiting word Sunday on the status of injured defender Callum Montgomery, who was replaced by David Norman to start the second half Friday. With Thomas Meilleur-Giguere out for the tournament after injuring his knee in training the day before the El Salvador game, Biello is short on centre backs although CF Montreal defender Zorhan Bassong is another option.

Only 17 outfield players and three goalkeepers are allowed on the tournament roster.

Captain David Cornelius started alongside Montgomery on Friday. He, Ballou Tabla and Lucas Dias all received yellow cards against El Salvador and would miss the group stage finale against Honduras if they were to get another yellow Monday.

"There's a lot of factors we're looking at," Biello said of his team selection.

The top two teams from each of the two groups advance to the semifinals with the winners booking their ticket to Tokyo, joining Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Egypt, France, Germany, the Ivory Coast, Japan, New Zealand, Romania, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea and Spain in the 16-country Olympic men's field.

Only players born in 1997 or later are eligible for this round of Olympic qualifying (the same age limit was kept despite the qualifying tournament's one-year delay). Countries that make it to the Olympics are allowed up to three overage players.

Mexico, which has won the last two CONCACAF qualifiers, and Honduras represented the region at the last two Olympics. Honduras was fourth at the 2016 Rio Games while Mexico defeated Brazil 2-1 to win gold in 2012 in London.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2021.

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press