Canada closed out the group stage of their CONCACAF Olympic qualifying campaign on Thursday, drawing Honduras 1-1 to progress to the semi-finals of that tournament. As a result, they now face tournament favourites Mexico on Sunday, with a spot in Tokyo on the line. Here’s what stood out from this game for Canada, as they did what they needed to do in order to progress, but missed a crucial opportunity to make their path to the Olympics a little easier.
They did what they needed to do, but at what cost?
On one hand, it’s good news that the Canadian Men’s National U23 Soccer team did what they needed to on Thursday- they got the result they needed to progress out of Group B at CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers, giving them a spot in Sunday’s semi-finals, in which they’ll have a chance to qualify for Tokyo with a win.
But on the other hand, due to that result, a 1-1 draw with Honduras, they ended up finishing in second place in their group, giving them a date with Group A winners, Mexico, in that must-win game.
For those unfamiliar with Mexico’s resume at this tournament historically, they head into this game looking to qualify for their 3rd consecutive Olympics, having made both of the last Olympics in 2012 and 2016. With 5 appearances at the last 7 Olympics, most in CONCACAF over that time, they’re the sort of team you want to avoid if possible, as they’re a bogey team for many in this region, Canada included.
They didn’t do anything to potentially dissuade that notion in the group stages, either, picking up 9 points out of 9 without expending too much energy, giving them all the confidence that they’ll need heading into that game Sunday.
Plus, with this tournament being played in Mexico, they’ll have the chance to play this game in front of their fans, giving them even further motivation to want to dispatch Canada on Sunday.
Most frustrating about all of that if you’re Canada? You could’ve avoided that with any sort of win on Thursday versus Honduras, as they both headed into that game with a chance to finish first with a win, with Honduras topping the group in case of a tie. That meant that if Canada had found any sort of way to score a second goal in this game, they’d be playing the US instead of Mexico on Sunday, giving them a slightly more favourable matchup on paper.
Despite that, they dragged themselves through their match with Honduras, seemingly content to just grind out the draw. To give credit to them, they defended well and got the result needed to progress to the semi-finals, which was the goal heading into this tournament, but with there being the chance to go for more, there’s a lot of ‘what ifs’ to be had with this game.
But alas, it was not meant to be. That doesn’t mean it’s over for Canada – far from it. It is the U23 level, where anything can happen, and Canada will believe that they can do what they need to snatch a result versus Mexico.
If they’re going to do that, however, they’re going to need to build off of their performance in the group stages, where they combined flashes of brilliance with some haphazard periods of play, making for mixed viewing at times.
And returning to this Honduras game, in particular, there is plenty for them to dissect ahead of Sunday. Here’s some of what stood out in this one, as they now get set to tackle a CONCACAF giant off of the back of this result.
A fleeting moment of joy:
With a win needed to top the group, it was always going to be interesting to see if Canada would be able to find the first goal against Honduras, and if they’d be able to do that early on in the match.
In their opening game, against El Salvador, they did that, and cruised as a result, defending their lead with exemplary professionalism.
They failed to do that in the second game versus Haiti, however, forcing them to settle for a 0-0 draw after a scrappy match with their Caribbean foes.
So when Canada scored a 28th-minute goal against Honduras, which was a peach of a header by their captain, Derek Cornelius, optimism in the Canadian ranks quickly shot up. After latching onto the end of a majestic curled ball from his Vancouver Whitecaps teammate, Patrick Metcalfe, Cornelius’s goal gave hope that Canada would be able to repeat their feats from the El Salvador game, where they mostly sucked the life out of the game once they were in the lead.
Honduras is a tough opponent, so you knew it wouldn’t be as easy as that, but you just felt that it could’ve given Canada the boost needed to push for a second goal likely needed to secure a win, considering that you probably still expected Honduras to claw their way back into this one.
But no one expected them to score 2 minutes after Cornelius did, as Denil Maldonado rose highest to a wide set-piece delivery, nodding the ball past an onrushing James Pantemis in the Canadian goal, who was a second too slow to react to the dangerous delivery and header.
To feel that immense pleasure of getting the lead only to throw it away a few minutes later was a massive gut punch for the Canadians, who had to find a way to regroup and avoid letting everything slip away, which to give credit to them, they avoided doing.
“Yeah, I mean as soon as you score, you’re really excited, and to concede so quickly right after, it’s honestly like getting shot,” Canadian full back Marcus Godinho told reporters after the game. “You’ve got to try and regroup.”
With Canada playing their 3rd game in 6 days, they tried to find another gear and battle through it, allowing them to progress, allowing them to rescue some joy, however.
“But the problem is that you’ve played a lot of minutes, the guys are fighting, so you have that going against you, then you concede the goal and it’s tough to regroup, but I think we did enough to hold on,” Godinho said. “And now, it’s about recovering and getting ready for the next game.”
And speaking of tired legs, it’s going to be interesting to see how Canada manages that problem ahead of their next game, as Godinho mentioned.
With the condensed nature of the schedule, some of Canada’s players saw a lot of minutes this past week, which certainly showed at times against Honduras.
They probably could’ve used their bench more in all 3 games, relying more on someone like Diyaeddine Abzi, who was the only Canadian outfield player not to play in these 3 games, but to be fair, he also hasn’t played competitively since the beginning of September, either, so with his fresh legs would come rust.
That’s a problem faced across the squad, as many of these players are still in pre-season mode, making fitness a bit of an issue versus Honduras, where the minutes of the past week seemed to catch up to them at times, especially in the second half.
“I think that the first half was a solid performance, there were some good things, I think our shape was good,” Canada’s head coach, Mauro Biello said after the game. “We played a good team, this is obviously a team (where) these players are all in season, and you saw us in the second half, we were just running on fumes a little bit in terms of our fitness.”
Heading into a game against Mexico, who are deep at all positions, are in form and have barely looked like they’ve gotten into second gear this tournament, Canada are going to have to do what they can to re-find their legs as quickly as possible now.
“It’s something that we’re gonna have to overcome here, going into this next game,” Biello continued. “ We’re going to have to recover and be ready against a strong opponent.”
Plus, while their depth is stretched at the back and in midfield, they do have a few fresh faces who could help them find their legs on Sunday.
Aidan Daniels is one, as he started on the bench versus Honduras after two solid performances in the El Salvador and Haiti games, so he’s an option.
Ditto with someone like Charles-Andreas Brym, who can play anywhere across the front 3, also making him someone worth considering.
But while those two names could be options for Biello to consider, Lucas Dias is someone that absolutely should be in the starting XI on Sunday, as he’s been excellent in 3 cameos off of the bench so far down in Mexico.
For a Canadian team that has consistently struggled to progress the ball forward, much less create chances, the Sporting CP product, Dias, has been a big spark in that regard, as he makes sure to push play up the field whenever he comes on.
In a one-off game versus Mexico, Canada is probably not going to have many opportunities to score, so based on what we’ve seen from Dias, he could be someone to maximize those chances they do get.
He’s only 18, so you don’t want to pin all of their hopes on him, but it certainly seems like trying him out wouldn’t hurt at this stage.
At this point, what do you have to lose?
Defensive framework worth highlighting: ”
And a big reason why you need someone like Dias to help find that spark?
The goal that they gave up against Honduras was only the first goal they conceded all tournament, and it was off of a set-piece, meaning that they’ve now gone 270 minutes without giving up a goal from open play.
That’s pretty good.
Typically, in past tournaments, Canada would just scrape out of the group stages with mediocre defensive records, before seeing a few goals go past them in the semi-finals.
This time, though, they actually head into the semis tied for the best defensive record in the whole tournament, which is not something you’re used to seeing from them at a competition like this.
Led by the likes of Derek Cornelius, who’s been a machine at both ends of the field for Canada, scoring a goal, adding an assist and leading the team in defensive actions, and Canada heads into this semi-final with plenty of reason to feel confident in their defensive ability.
And it’s not all just down to Cornelius, either, as David Norman Jr, Marcus Godinho and Zachary Brault-Guillard have all rounded off what’s turned out to be a very solid Canadian backline these past 3 games.
“I think the whole team did a good job defensively,” Biello said of his defensive unit. “Derek (Cornelius) scored a big goal on the set-piece and he was a warrior tonight and he took a knock, and we made this decision to not take any risks and take him out, but overall I think it was a solid performance, so I’m quite pleased with the way that we defended.”
So now, against Mexico, Canada will have to find a way to put all of that together nearly flawlessly, even they’ll be in tough to topple their hosts.
But if you’re to look at this from a glass-half-full perspective, there is also reason to be optimistic.
As we mentioned earlier, Canada has defended well, which is something you’re going to have to do a lot of against Mexico, so if they can keep that up, that’d be a good start.
From there, they just need to find more chances. Be it by including Dias, or shifting the tactics (or both), Canada needs to position itself to be able to get the 1 or 2 goals that they’d need to get if they were able to actually hold Mexico at bay.
It’s easier said than done, but it’s the framework that they’d need to establish to get the result they desire.
And there’s one last thing that is in their favour heading into this game – the amount of adversity that they’ve faced so far.
Mexico has cruised to 3 wins without much worry, whereas Canada has had to fight their way out of the group. If Canada can use that experience to ramp up the intensity against a Mexican team that hasn’t really left cruise control yet, they could surprise them, especially at the start of the game.
Again, it would’ve been ideal to avoid this matchup, but hey, you can only play the team in front of you, so it’s important that Canada do what they can to prepare accordingly.
“Yeah, look, any time you play against Mexico, we’re going to be a better team after that, I think for sure this will be a big challenge for us,” Biello admitted. “But the way this team has been fighting, the way this team has been playing defensively, we haven’t given up a goal in the run of play in the tournament, I think that we could build on stuff like that.”
“For us, it’s about getting the right tactics versus this team, and it’s one game, we’ll see now in the next couple of days how we recover from this game and be ready for that game.”
As we’ve done throughout these games, we tracked Canada’s stats against Honduras on Thursday. Here’s how they looked.
|Player||Saves||Goals||Assists||Key Pass||Tackles||Interceptions/Aerial Duels won||Blocks|
And with this being the last game of the group stage, here is a chart with the combined stats from all 3 of the games.
|Player||Saves||Goals||Assists||Key Pass||Tackles||Interceptions/Aerial Duels won||Blocks|
So now, the focus has shifted to Sunday for Canada, as they’ll do their best to prepare for Mexico in the short time that they have before then.
It won’t be an easy game, far from it, but they’ll have belief in their abilities to turn the impossible into a reality.
Having achieved their first goal heading into this tournament – progressing past the group stages, they’ll now feel like they still have a chance to achieve their second, and that’s to make the Olympics.
And although it’s a tough position they’ve found themselves in before, they’ve set out this tournament to prove that this Canadian team is different, and to be fair, that seems to be the case so far.
What better way to prove how different you are than beating a Mexico team seen as the current bully of this tournament?
Canada has a chance now to do that now in the hosts’ own backyard, for better or for worse.
We’ll find out which it ends up being on Sunday, now.
Up Next: Canada vs Mexico, Sunday, March, 28th, 2021, 18:00 PDT, 21:00 EDT (Guadalajara, Mexico).
Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/MexSport