Later this week, Canada’s Men’s National U23 team will kick off their CONCACAF Olympic qualifying campaign down in Mexico. In this, we preview their group for that tournament, as a stiff test awaits this Canadian team in their quest to erase a 37-year Olympic drought.
After a long wait, the quest towards Olympic glory starts later this week for a select few teams down in Mexico.
For one of those teams, the Canadian Men’s National U23 soccer team, these games can’t come soon enough here, as they get set to participate in those CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers later this week. A year on from when this tournament was originally supposed to be played, they’ve gathered to do what they were supposed to do exactly 12 months ago, before a global pandemic threw a wrench in those plans.
But now, they’ll be able to take the pitch and fight for a chance to participate in the 2021 Summer Olympics, as they look to be the first Canadian Men’s Soccer team in 37 years to compete in that competition.
The road there won’t be easy, as they’ll have to win some tough games against hard-nosed CONCACAF opposition, which is never easy to do, but they’ll feel confident in their chances nonetheless. In a short tournament where teams don’t have much time to adjust to surroundings, it’s important that Canada hits the ground running right from the get-go, allowing them to get out of the group before hopefully rounding into form right at the most crucial moment – the famed ‘win and you’re in’ semi-final match.
As we saw last week, this Canadian team is one of the better ones that Canada has sent to this tournament compared to past years, but despite that, this group is not very battle-tested, which may play a role in some of the matches that they should find themselves in.
Despite that, however, optimism has to be decently high in the Canadian camp at the moment. Canada has made the semi-finals of the last 3 Olympic qualifying tournaments, but they’ve just failed to take that final step, which is actually winning that important game, which is reflected in the fact that they’ve been outscored 8-1 in those 3 decisive matches where a spot in the Olympics was on the line.
Now, led by a veteran-heavy squad (at least for a team at the U23 level, that is), it’s hoped that Canada can find a way to reverse their fortunes this time around, allowing them to progress over that hump, making history in the process.
To get there, however, they’ll have to put up a good performance in the group stages, where they’ll take on El Salvador, Haiti and Honduras, in that exact order, over a span of around a week. No matter how skilled or not skilled those three teams will be, there’s no doubt that they’re some of CONCACAF’s pluckiest teams, so these games should be scrappy.
But while Canada will have to play those 3 tough games, it’s worth pondering: what is reasonable to expect from this team in the group stages?
In this preview, we’ll dive into that, as we look into how Canada’s first three opponents stack up to their northern counterparts, who should be getting ready for soccer of the most CONCACAF-Esque order down in Mexico.
Does the draw favour Canada?
Before we dive into what to expect from the teams, however, it’s worth exploring the draw and the order in which Canada will have to play these games, which in a short tournament format, actually makes more of a difference than one would think.
In terms of the draw, Canada came out alright, as they dodged the US and Mexico in the group stages, but also avoided the Dominican Republic, who are probably the biggest underdogs at this tournament. Instead, by getting with Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti in Group B, they’ve found themselves in a very balanced group, one where every team will feel confident in their chances of advancing to the semi-finals.
Of the 3, Honduras are the favourites, having made the Olympics in 2008, 2012 and 2016, giving them the most experience of this group by a country mile, especially considering the other 3 Group B teams have made the Olympics a combined two times since the 1960s.
But while Honduras will likely be Canada’s toughest match, El Salvador and Haiti are no pushovers, which will make each game a battle.
El Salvador’s tough to project, as they missed out on the qualifiers for the 2016 Olympics altogether, but they have a decent domestic league and are masters of the dark arts of CONCACAF. They may be on the decline at the senior level, at least compared to where they were 5 to 10 years ago, but one thing is for sure – they’ll bring their A-game no matter how skilled or unskilled their squad is.
As for Haiti, they’ve been on more of an upwards trajectory as of late, having made big strides at the senior level, even making the semi-finals of the 2019 Gold Cup. With big improvements in their domestic league, they’ve built up decent depth at the National Team level, and play a stingy counter-attacking style that can be hard to break down.
So if we had to do way-too-early power rankings for Canada, their toughest matches, in order, are probably Honduras, Haiti and El Salvador.
And as luck has it, if we look at Canada’s schedule, they play El Salvador first, Haiti second and Honduras last, giving them a chance to build up towards that all-important match against Honduras, in which you’d hope Canada is playing for a spot on top of the group when it happens.
A schedule like that can be a poison pill, as an early loss would be devastating considering that the games would only get harder for Canada, but it could be a good way for them to overcome the lack of preparatory matches this team has played in the leadup to this tournament.
They won’t want to overlook any of their opponents, but based on what we know about them, it’d be reasonable to expect Canada to challenge for that top spot in Group B, theoretically giving them a better chance in that ‘win and you’re in’ semi-final match.
But while Canada will have the goal of winning all of their games and qualifying as easily as possible, as will all the other teams there, what can they reasonably expect in these 3 games?
To get a better idea of that, let’s take a look at their three opponents to try and see what one should expect from them, first.
Starting with El Salvador, who are looking to qualify for the Olympics for the first time since 1968, it’ll be interesting to see what they can do in their return to this tournament, having missed out back in 2015.
But while they were once one of CONCACAF’s pluckiest teams, some of the shine has worn off of them in recent years.
At the senior level, they’ve failed to qualify for the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying two cycles in a row now, have also failed to qualify out of their group in 2 of the last 3 Gold Cups, and made what seemed like should’ve been an easy ride through League B of Nations League a lot tougher than it should’ve been.
With this being a U23 tournament, that sort of history at the senior level doesn’t matter too much, but seeing that those sorts of results at that level are also typically indicative of the state of a countries youth development, things don’t look particularly great for El Salvador in that area at the moment.
Despite that, however, there a few interesting trends worth noting. At the domestic level in 2020, they had a club team, Alianza, qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, where they narrowly lost to eventual champions, Tigres, in the Round of 16 via a late second leg goal via Tigres’s goalkeeper. With 3 Alianza players on their Olympic roster, that experience could prove to be valuable in a tournament like this.
That enthusiasm was quickly dampened by their countries performance in the CONCACAF League later in the year, however, as all 3 of their teams failed to win any of their two-legged series, with FAS and Municipal Limeno falling in the preliminary rounds, while Alianza fell in the Round of 16, meaning that no El Salvador teams will play in the Champions League in 2021. On the other hand, with only 1 FAS and Municipal Limeno player joining the 3 aforementioned Alianza players on this squad, that disappointment won’t be very present in the squad, though, which could be a positive.
But considering that 11 out of 16 of the other players on the squad play on teams in the El Salvadorian league who failed to even qualify for the CONCACAF League, it does make you wonder about how good this team will end up being.
There are a few interesting names on their squad list, including midfielder Eric Calvillo and goalkeeper Edgar Alguera of the San Jose Earthquakes, who’ll bring something different as one of the few non-domestic players on this squad. Alguera, in particular, is a curious case, because as a late 2004 birthday, he’s one of the youngest players in this tournament, so it’ll be interesting to see if he gets any minutes.
When looking at their team list, however, the most interesting name may be 2001-born forward Enrico Duenas, who has 6 goals and 2 assists in 5 games for Eredivise mainstays Vitesse’s U21 team this season. He’s still young enough to be eligible for the 2026 Olympic cycle, but if he continues to progress at this rate, he might be too good to be in El Salvador’s plans then, so it’ll be interesting to see if he gets trusted with important minutes in a tournament like this.
But aside from Alguera and Duenas, the rest of this El Salvador team is loaded with 1998, 1999 and 2000 birthdates, most of them playing in their countries domestic league, which at the very least, gives them plenty of veteran presence and familiarity with one another.
Ultimately, given that El Salvador’s style at the senior level is to have a team-first approach, their roster construction may be very beneficial to that, however, allowing them to focus on the collective instead of a handful of individuals.
They won’t be a team that’ll try to play run-and-gun football to try and blow teams out, but expect them to be organized defensively, allowing them to sit back before trying to pounce on the counter-attack, as they tend to do at the senior level.
After El Salvador will be Haiti, who are going to be such a fascinating team to monitor heading into this tournament.
At the senior level, they’ve turned plenty of heads in recent years, first with their aforementioned run to the Gold Cup semi-finals in 2019, before putting up a solid account of themselves in Nations League A action later that year, putting up 3 draws and 1 loss in a tough group with Costa Rica and Curacao.
Ultimately, that wasn’t enough for them to stay in League A, as they were relegated to League B for the next edition of Nations League, but they showed that they can compete with some of the region’s best in those games.
So if you consider what we said about El Salvador in terms of how success at the senior level is usually indicative of success at the youth level, it makes Haiti a curious side to monitor in this sort of tournament.
And plus, they’re coming off of a big year at the club level, as their lone representative in the CONCACAF League, Archaie, qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League for 2021 by finishing in the top 6 of CONCACAF League, giving them a platform to perform on next year.
There are no Archaie players in this Olympic squad, unfortunately for Haiti, but you do wonder if that run is indicative of the development of the Haitian league as a whole. Given that over a half-dozen players on Haiti’s 2019 Gold Cup team came through the Haitian league at some point or another, there could be some plausibility to that theory.
As for their squad for this tournament, there are a few names to keep an eye on, especially considering that they’ve got 11 of their 20 players currently playing in Haiti.
Their big 3 to pay close attention to are probably defender Djimy Alexis and midfielders Dutherson Clervaux and Bicou Bissainthe, who all were part of that famed Gold Cup side 2 years ago. Alexis, who currently plays for Lori FC in Armenia, most famously scored an 81st-minute winning goal for Haiti in the group stages of that tournament against Costa Rica, helping his team top the group ahead of the knockout stages.
Elsewhere in the squad, an interesting name to keep an eye out for will be midfielder Christopher Attys, who has made 12 appearances in Italy for Serie B’s SPAL’s U19 team this year, on loan from Inter Milan. It’s not yet clear how big of a role he’ll play for Haiti, but on a team mostly loaded with older players in their domestic leagues, he could prove to be a difference-maker in key moments.
But much like El Salvador, this Haiti team will be a side that will rely on the collective versus their individual players, similar to what they did at the Gold Cup.
So Canada, who knows very well what that looks like, having blown a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 against them in the quarter-finals of that tournament, they’ll have to be very wary of Haiti’s counter-attacking threat, which should be much more dangerous than El Salvador’s.
Plus, considering that they’ve already been preparing for this tournament with friendlies all this past month, they may be the most game-ready team of this group, which will make things all the more interesting.
While all of the games haven’t been exactly against what some may call top-tier opposition, as they even played a bunch of Mexican fans in a 15-0 drubbing a week and a half ago, just having any sort of game preparation does give them a leg up on some of the other teams in this group, especially Canada.
Lastly, but most definitely not least, is Honduras, who will be a tough out for any team during this tournament. Having made it to the last 3 Olympic tournaments, they know what it takes to win, making them the big favourites to top this group.
And when looking at their roster, you can see why. There’s a reason why their senior team comfortably topped their group in Nations League A action in the fall of 2019, making up for a poor 2019 Gold Cup where they crashed out in the group stages, as they play plucky and organized soccer.
They might no longer have the top-end talent that they had at their heyday, back when they made the World Cup in both 2010 and 2014, but they still have plenty of depth in order to compete at the CONCACAF level. That’s due to the fact that their league is one of the strongest in the region, giving them an advantage in a tournament like this, where teams with strong domestic leagues tend to thrive.
Take a look at their play in the 2020 Champions League and CONCACAF League, as an example.
In the Champions League, they had 1 team, Olimpia, reach the semi-finals of the tournament, where they fell to eventual champions Tigres, after beating Costa Rica’s Saprissa and MLS’s Montreal Impact on their road to that point. Their other Champions League participants, Motagua, didn’t fare as well, losing to Atlanta United in the Round of 16, but Olimpia’s strong run more than made up for that.
Meanwhile, over in CONCACAF League, their 3 participants in that competition, Motagua, Olimpia and Marathon, all made it to at least the quarter-finals, which was a good return for them. Even though Marathon and Motagua both fell at that stage, with Marathon losing to eventual finalists Saprissa, while Motagua lost to Olimpia in an all-Honduran matchup (Olimpia would go onto lose in the semi-finals), given that both Olimpia and Marathon qualified for the 2021 Champions League via their performances, it was a solid campaign for them as a whole.
As for their team itself, with 14 of their 20 players currently playing in their domestic league, including 8 that played on either Olimpia, Marathon or Motagua last year, Honduras has a battle-tested team ahead of this tournament.
And that’s reflected in the age of most of their players, as they only have 3 players born in 2000 or later in their squad, showing that they’ve elected to go veteran-heavy down in Mexico. In a younger tournament, that should give them a leg up in the group stages, as their experience will be expected to give them a boost that allows them to start strong out of the gates.
In terms of the headliner players, forward Luis Palma of CDS Vida in Honduras is a known goalscorer, while Real Salt Lake forward Douglas Martinez has dominated the USL in the past, and had 3 goals to go along with nearly 1000 minutes of MLS action last year.
Elsewhere in the squad, Olimpia midfielder Edwin Rodriguez could be an important piece in the middle of the park, as he has 4 senior caps for Honduras to his name, while Everton (of Chile, not England) defender Denil Maldonado could be a key contributor at the back, as his 5 senior caps could also prove to be a big asset to this team.
But what is clear here is that of all the teams that are at this tournament, this Honduran team may be one of the most experienced ones there, so they’re not to be taken lightly as they look to try and extend their streak of consecutive Olympic qualifications to 4.
So for Canada, it’ll be very interesting to see how they fare in this tournament, as a tough slate of games await them.
As we said before, they’ll feel confident in their chances of qualifying, but despite that, they’ll also know that they’ll need to bring their A-game in order to get through this tough group.
But if they do that, that’ll massively bolster their chances of qualifying for the Olympics via the semi-final, especially if they win their group, theoretically giving them an easier opponent.
With no teams being easy outs in this tournament, that won’t change much, so at the very least, as long as they get out of their group in good form, their chances of breaking their lengthy Olympic drought should be pretty high.
All part of a very busy year of action for the Men’s National Team, these U23 players will look to get the ball rolling on what’s also hoped to be a successful year for Canada, starting with their participation at this tournament.
Up Next: Canada vs El Salvador, Friday, March 19th, 2021, 15:00 PST/18:00 EST (Guadalajara, Mexico)
Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer