Canadian men's soccer team faces tough challenge in Olympic qualifying

·5 min read

Canada will be battling more than El Salvador on Friday when it opens play at the CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship in Guadalajara.

Heat (the forecast for the 4 p.m. local time kickoff calls for a temperature of 29 C), altitude (1,550 metres), inactivity (14 of Canada's 20-man roster play in North America and so are coming from out of season) and unfamiliarity (the Mexico tournament marks the first exclusive get-together for this under-23 team) will likely all come into play at Jalisco Stadium.

But for Canada Soccer and men's supremo John Herdman, who has tasked the Olympic team to assistant Mauro Biello while he looks after the senior side in World Cup qualifying, it's a chance to test Canada's depth and processes.

Since taking over the men's national team in January 2018, Herdman has brought plenty of young talent into camp to ensure everyone is on the same page.

"This is an opportunity for a lot of young players here to showcase themselves but at the same time, in terms of the program, everything's aligned from the men's national team all the way to our U-15 program," Biello told a virtual news conference Thursday.

"So a lot of these players that have had some experience graduating through the youth teams and now into the U-23s in our environments are now ready."

Ten of Canada's 20 players have national team experience.

Derek Cornelius (13 caps), Marcus Godinho (5), Zachary Brault-Guillard (4), Charles-Andreas Brym (3), Theo Bair (2), Zorhan Bassong (2), Ballou Tabla (2) and Kris Twardek (1) have all played for the senior side while the uncapped Tajon Buchanan and James Pantemis have been called into at least one senior camp.

Herdman and Biello joined forces in guiding a young Canadian side that turned heads at the prestigious Toulon youth tournament in France in May-June 2018.

Cornelius, Pantemis, Aidan Daniels and forward Theo Bair were on that Toulon team.

Now they are looking to help the Canadian men return to the Olympics for the first time since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, where Canada lost to Brazil in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals.

"We're sure that the quality is there. We're sure that we have the talent," said Cornelius, a 23-year-old defender with the Vancouver Whitecaps. "And it's just about getting the small things right so that we can really show it on the pitch."

The eight-team Olympic qualifier was originally scheduled for last March but was postponed due to the pandemic. It will send two teams from the region, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean, to the Summer Olympics.

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.

After facing El Salvador, Canada continues Group B play against Haiti on Monday and Honduras next Wednesday. Group A, which opened the tournament Thursday, consists of Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the U.S.

The top two in each group advance to the semifinals with the winners booking their tickets to Tokyo.

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.

Biello calls El Salvador a possession-based technical team that is organized defensively. It's also a team that has been together three times already, he noted.

"Obviously my main concern is getting that rhythm," Biello said of his squad. "A lot of these players haven't played, whether it's off-season, whether it's pre-season."

"This is not going to happen perfectly on the first go," added Cornelius. "I'm just looking to improve and get the team to be better and better as we go along in the tournament."

With World Cup qualifiers and the Gold Cup on deck this year, the Canadian men have plenty to play for.

Canada and El Salvador tied 0-0 when they met at the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament. Canada won 4-2 in 1996.

Biello was unable to summon Toronto FC young talent after the MLS team went into a training camp lockdown earlier this month due to an outbreak of COVID-19.

El Salvador forwards Joshua Perez and Enrico Hernandez are both based in Europe, with Spain's UD Ibiza Spain and the Netherlands' Vitesse, respectively.

Canada Olympic Team

Goalkeepers: Sebastian Breza, Bologna (Italy); Matthew Nogueira, CS Maritimo (Portugal); James Pantemis, CF Montreal (MLS).

Defenders: Zorhan Bassong, CF Montreal (MLS); Zachary Brault-Guillard, CF Montreal (MLS); Derek Cornelius, Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS); Marcus Godinho, FSV Zwickau (Germany); Thomas Meilleur-Giguere, Pacific FC (CPL); Callum Montgomery, Minnesota United FC (MLS).

Midfielders: Michael Baldisimo, Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS); Aidan Daniels, Oklahoma City Energy FC (USL Championship); Lucas Dias, Sporting Lisbon (Portugal); Patrick Metcalfe, Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS); David Norman, Cavalry FC (CPL) Ryan Raposo, Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS).

Forwards: Theo Bair, Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS); Charles-Andreas Brym, Royal Excel Mouscron (Belgium); Tajon Buchanan, New England Revolution (MLS); Ballou Tabla, CF Montreal (MLS); Kris Twardek, Jagiellonia (Poland).

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press