COVID-19 causes young Toronto FC players to miss out on Olympic qualifying tournament

·5 min read

The pandemic pushed back the CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship by a year. And now COVID-19 is preventing Toronto FC's young talent from taking part.

With Toronto players and staff isolating at home after a series of positive COVID-19 tests at the MLS team's training camp, Canada Olympic coach Mauro Biello has been forced to forgo picking any of the nine TFC players that were on his provisional 50-man roster for the tournament that kicks off March 18 in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Biello's final 20-man roster features five players from the Vancouver Whitecaps (Derek Cornelius, Michael Baldisimo, Ryan Raposo, Theo Bair and Patrick Metcalf) and four from CF Montreal (James Pantemis, Zachary Brault-Guillard, Zorhan Bassong and Ballou Tabla).

Toronto FC's Julian Dunn, Liam Fraser, Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, Jayden Nelson, Noble Okello, Jordan Perruzza, Ralph Priso, Rocco Romeo and Jacob Shaffelburg were all on the provisional roster. But none made the final list.

"It's an unfortunate situation that happened in Toronto that has definitely impacted the selection process," said Biello.

It leaves Canada with a tougher mountain to climb at the Olympic qualifier, with just two Tokyo berths available. Canada has been drawn in Group B, opening March 19 against El Salvador before facing Haiti on March 22 and Honduras on March 25.

The Canadian men have failed to qualify for the OIympics since losing to Brazil in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

The Canada players were scheduled to arrive in Mexico on Wednesday for a pre-tournament camp. They were to be tested upon arrival, with a one-day quarantine pending the test results.

Biello said the TFC players would not have been available until March 19, with little training under their belt. Factor in the late arrival and testing upon arrival in Mexico and he said they would have missed the first two games.

"Look, it's a timing thing," he said. "It's unfortunate. But having them fly in and then having to quarantine and not training. And then asking these players to go on a field. It didn't make sense (picking them) from that perspective."

TFC closed its training centre and had players and staff self-isolate after what GM Ali Curtis described as a "small handful" of positive COVID test. The MLS club did not immediately respond to a request Wednesday for an update on the team's health or training situation.

The eight-team Olympic qualifying tournament, originally scheduled to be played last spring, runs March 18 to 30 in Guadalajara. It will determine two teams to represent North and Central America and the Caribbean at the Tokyo Games, whose soccer competition is slated to run July 21 through Aug. 7.

FIFA has kept the same Olympic men’s eligibility rules that were first established, saying players must be born after Jan. 1, 1997.

The Olympic qualifying tournament is part of a congested schedule that sees the Canadian senior side open its World Cup qualifying campaign March 25. And while star players like Bayern Munich's Alphonso Davies and Lille's Jonathan David are eligible for the under-23 Olympic team, they are being kept for the senior side.

Group A of the CONCACAF qualifier features the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.

The top two in each pool advance to the semifinals with the March 28 semifinal winners booking their ticket to the Olympics.

The Canada roster features 10 players with senior national team experience: Bair, Bassong, Brault-Guillard, Cornelius, Tabla, Tajon Buchanan, Charles-Andreas Brym, Marcus Godinho, James Pantemis and Kris Twardek.

Seven others have Canadian youth team experience.

While this marks the first time the Olympic team has been together, Canada men's senior coach John Herdman has made a point of including young talent in his January camps. Herdman and Biello also had good success with a young side at the 2018 Toulon youth tournament in France.

Biello said that approach has improved the depth chart.

"I think we have a team that can compete," he said. "For sure that group is not going to be easy, there's going to be tough games ... I'm expecting to grow throughout this tournament."

Metcalfe, Lucas Dias and Callum Montgomery are making their first appearance in the Canadian youth ranks. At 18, Dias is the youngest member of the squad.

Dias plays for Sporting Lisbon's under-23 side.

"Which s a good level ... He's doing well over there," said Biello.

There are two Canadian Premier League players: Thomas Meilleur-Giguere of Pacific FC and David Norman of Cavalry FC.

Canada Soccer said several players were not released by the clubs since the pre-camp and one match at the tournament falls outside the March FIFA international window.

"There were some challenges with some players, getting their release" Biello said. "It's only normal."

Biello said midfielder Harry Paton, who starts for Scotland's Ross County FC, was not released by his club. Others, he said, saw the tournament as a good opportunity for their talent.

Teams are not allowed to replace players once the competition begins, with the exception of injured players who can be replaced before the opening match.

Women’s Olympic qualifying in the region took place in January-February 2020 before the pandemic. Canada, which won bronze at the last two Olympics, and the defending champion U.S. have both qualified.


Canada's roster for CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying

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 10, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press