GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Sparked by Tajon Buchanan's two early goals, Canada opened play at the CONCACAF Men's Olympic Qualifying Championship with an impressive 2-0 win over El Salvador on Friday.
While there were a few shaky moments at the back, the Canadian under-24 side looked good against a physical El Salvador side. Canada moved the ball quickly and showed teeth in attack.
The performance was all the more commendable given eight of Canada's starters are with MLS clubs and so just starting their pre-season.
"I'm happy with the results," said Canada coach Mauro Biello. "It was tough for the boys in terms of the fitness of this group. But I'm very proud of the way they fought, the way they were able to hurt the other team in moments, and closed out the game.
"What I said to them is we're going to grow throughout this tournament. It's normal. Some players had met for the first time."
The eight-country tournament will decide which two teams represent the region, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean, at the Tokyo Olympics. The qualifier was originally scheduled for last March but was postponed due to the pandemic.
The Canadian men last made it to the Olympics in 1984 in Los Angeles where they lost to Brazil in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals.
Canada continues Group B play against Haiti on Monday and Honduras next Wednesday. Group A opened play Thursday with the U.S. defeating Costa Rica 1-0 and Mexico beating the Dominican Republic 4-1.
The top two in each group advance to the semifinals with the winners booking their tickets to Tokyo.
Buchanan, who is entering his third season with the New England Revolution, made his presence felt early. A live wire blessed with pace and a deep bag of tricks, he turned heads in MLS last year when he led all Canadians with 23 regular-season appearances — some at fullback.
"Everybody will see the two goals but coaches will look at the work that he does," said Biello. "The way he tracked back in the 90th minute, for me, was quite impressive.
"He's a player that's just growing. He had a good season last year in New England, came into camp with the men's (senior) team in January (and) showed his qualities. And now today he was focused to show what he could do and he was able to get those two great goals. And again the work that he puts in for the team is excellent."
The 22-year-old winger from Brampton, Ont., opened the scoring in the 17th minute, capping a rapid-fire attack that saw Ballou Tabla find Buchanan in space near the edge of the El Salvador penalty box. The speedy Buchanan beat defender Kevin Menjivar and slotted his left-footed shot from a tight angle through goalkeeper Mario Gonzalez's legs.
Buchanan scored again four minutes later, this time with a rocket of a shot through traffic. A Canadian free kick landed at the feet of Derek Cornelius in the El Salvador penalty box and the Canada captain calmly laid the ball back to Buchanan, who hammered it home with his right foot from just outside the box.
Buchanan, named Canada Soccer's Youth International Player of the Year in 2020, celebrated with an equally impressive double-somersault. A kneeling Cornelius then mimed giving him a shoeshine.
Buchanan is the 12th Canadian to score twice in a CONCACAF men's Olympic qualifier -- and the first since Tosaint Ricketts in 2008.
Buchanan played provider in the 51st minute, beating a defender down the flank and the bending a perfect ball to Tabla in front of goal. But Gonzalez got his body in front of the shot.
It was 30 degrees Celsius at kickoff at the 55,000-capacity Jalisco Stadium, which was empty due to the pandemic. The Canadians also had to deal with the altitude (1,550 metres).
Honduras blanked Haiti in the earlier game. Haiti started with 10 men and an outfield player in goal because part of its delegation arrived in Guadalajara late, impacting the timing of COVID-19 testing. The team got reinforcements during the match, including a goalkeeper, after tests came back negative.
Adding to Haiti's woes, defender Djimy Alexis was sent off in stoppage time for a second yellow card.
Biello's starting 11 included five players who had seen action with the senior side: goalkeeper James Pantemis, defenders Zachary Brault-Guillard, Marcus Godinho and Cornelius and forwards Charles-Andreas Brym and Tabla.
The 23-year-old Cornelius has the most senior caps at 13. Pantemis and Buchanan are uncapped but have both spent time with the senior team.
Pantemis has a good game, equal to everything thrown at him. Biello called his team's defensive efforts "a hell of a shift."
Canada's starting 11 featured the eight MLS players — three each from Montreal and Vancouver and one apiece from Minnesota and New England. Of the other three, one was from the USL and two from Europe.
There were six yellow cards in the game, three apiece.
Only players born in 1997 or later are eligible for 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.
Canada made two late changes to its roster Friday morning.
Citing medical reasons, Canada replaced defender Thomas Meilleur-Giguere (Pacific FC, CPL) and forward Kris Twardek (Jagiellonia, Poland) with Cavalry FC defender/winger Mo Farsi and York United FC defender Diyaeddine Abzi.
While Canada Soccer did not specify the medical issues, Meilleur-Giguere said he had torn his medial collateral ligament the day before the match.
"Life is so unfair sometimes, worked so hard for that moment and boom," he wrote in a social media post.
The departures leave Canada short at centre back, a problem that was exacerbated when Callum Montgomery left the game with an injury.
Farsi, named Best Canadian U-21 Player of the Year in the CPL in 2020, came off the bench in the 85th minute.
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 19, 2021
The Canadian Press