Stiff Test: CanM23’s ready to throw everything they’ve got at CONCACAF ‘giant’ Mexico in crucial ‘win and you’re in’ semi-final with Olympic spot on the line

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National U23 team will take on Mexico in a crucial semi-final on Sunday, with a spot in the Olympics on the line. Here’s how the mood currently is in the Canadian camp, as they look to make history against a CONCACAF giant.

It wasn’t pretty, but they got the first part of the job done. 

Heading into this CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament, the first goal for Canada Soccer’s Men’s National U23 team was always to get out of their group down in Mexico, putting them in the ‘win and you’re in’ semi-final. 

They did that, progressing out of their group while remaining undefeated, winning one game and drawing two others in the process, getting them into the final 4 of this tournament. 

Despite not losing a game, however, they still finished second in their group behind Honduras on goal difference, matching them up against hosts and tournament favourites Mexico on Sunday, making the second part of their job, winning that semi-final and making the Olympics, all the much harder. 

As they look to make the Olympics for the first time in 37 years, the challenge that now awaits them is massive, as they’ll have to try and play David to Mexico’s Goliath, something they’re aware of. 

“Yeah, I think, we’re well aware of who the opponent is,” Canada’s head coach, Mauro Biello, said in a press conference Saturday morning. “It’s a giant in CONCACAF. And for us, I think we’re in a position where we wanted to be, in terms of now getting into that one game that allows us to go through to the Olympics. And we’re looking at that, it’s one game that anything could happen, we’re preparing to play the giant.”

But as much as they would’ve wanted to avoid Mexico, there’s not much that they can do about it at this point. They’ve just got to focus on the task at hand, and find a way to work through it, potentially allowing them to grab a historical result. 

That means preparing to exploit Mexico’s weaknesses, which much like any team in the world, is something they do have a few of. Their weaknesses aren’t as notable as most other teams, as they’re good enough to mask them most of the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

They tend to dominate games offensively in transition, but they’re vulnerable in the phases shortly after giving up the ball, as they sometimes inadvertently throw too many bodies forward in order to try and score, unbalancing their defensive line. 

So for Canada, they’ll feel confident in being able to at least try and target those areas in this game, giving them any sort of chance possible to try and take down Mexico. 

“Yes, for me, the thing that impressed me the most, is just their transition game is really just at another level,” Biello admitted. “When they lose the ball, they recover it quickly, (and use) their speed to get forward and transition to really hurt you in those in those moments. And for me what I take out of it is that you can’t give them that space, and sometimes it’s in that chaos that you could get hurt by a team like Mexico where they’ll really take advantage of a team in transition where they’re not balanced.”

“So for us, it’s about having that balance all the time, that there’s always somebody there (so) they’re not attacking that space, so they’re not in isolation, so we need to make sure to do a good job at that.”

And although a lot of the focus will be breaking down Mexico, and rightfully so, as the Mexicans have only conceded 1 goal this tournament, Canada does have a few things that they’ve done pretty well themselves so far, as well. 

Much like their opponents, they’ve also only conceded 1 goal, and it came via a set-piece versus Honduras in their last game of the group stages, meaning that they’re yet to concede a goal in open play in 270 minutes of action down in Mexico. 

Led by James Pantemis in goal, and his usual back 4 of Zachary Brault-Guillard, David Norman Jr, Derek Cornelius and Marcus Godinho in front of him, Canada has implemented some strong defensive structure, of which has rarely been ever seen from them at this qualifying tournament. 

In a game that’ll likely be decided by a handful of moments, they’ll look to continue that into Sunday, giving them hope of being able to keep the Mexicans at bay long enough to get forward and find some magic at the other end of the pitch.

“I’m very happy to work with our defence over the course of this tournament,” Pantemis told reporters in French on Saturday. “To only concede one goal over the course of the tournament is big for our team, especially since we haven’t lost a game yet. So we’re going to build off of these stats, of course, we need to adjust, we’ve adjusted to each team.”

“We know Mexico is going to be tough, they have talented forwards with a lot of experience, we saw during this tournament that they create a lot of chances, a lot of crosses, shots from distance, so we’ll be ready for that. I think our staff has put together a good tactical plan to be ready for tomorrow.” 

On the other hand, while Canada’s defence has been sterling, their attacking play hasn’t quite been as good, as they’ve struggled to generate chances, much less score, aside from a 15 minute period in their first game against El Salvador where they scored 2 goals. 

Coming into this game, that means Canada has only scored 1 goal in the last 240 minutes of game action, and it came via a set-piece, showing their struggles at the other end of the field. 

But although a lot of onus will be put on trying to stop Mexico, and rightfully so, they’ll also need to find a way to generate more offence. 

If not, it could be a case of unstoppable force meets immovable object, and Mexico will usually win that battle. 

Biello recognizes that, so expect Canada to try and come out and try and show more of a cutting edge offensively on Sunday, allowing them to find some much-needed goals. 

“For us, it’s all about attacking spaces, whether it’s in a transition moment, or whether it’s in our scenario in some of our structures and I think what’s been missing is just the timing of some of our movements when we’re on the ball and getting that execution right,’ Biello said. “If I think of the Haiti game, when you go back and you look at the tactical footage, you really see that the spaces were there, but the timing was off, or the ball was a bit too long, or the quality wasn’t there and I think it has to come together in a game like versus Mexico, because the chances won’t be there.”

“Sometimes, it’s these little details of reading the cues early enough, getting the timing right and then the execution of it. I think the players know the structure, they know what the movements are, and in the end, if we’re able to get that right in the right moments to attack those spaces, then we’re going to create chances, and I think that’s the idea versus them.”

BTSVancity Player to Watch: Derek Cornelius

Canada’s captain, Derek Cornelius, stands over a free kick for Canada vs Haiti in the group stages (Canada Soccer)

Heading into this game, that’ll put a lot of onus on Canada’s captain, Derek Cornelius, to continue the herculean effort he’s so far put in for this team during this tournament. 

Playing at the heart of Canada’s defence, he’s played a big role in their defensive success, but he’s also chipped in at the other end of the pitch, scoring a goal and adding an assist in the 3 games to date.

He left their last game with a bit of a knock, which was seen as a worry for Canadian fans, but luckily for Canada, it looks like their talisman is ready to dive back into the fight on Sunday, giving them a big boost. 

“Yeah Derek, he got treatment yesterday,” Biello said of his captain. “So it’s progressing everyday, today we’ll have training, he’ll get an opportunity to test it, to see how it reacts under a little bit of stress. We feel that at this point, from the medical team, they’re very confident that he’ll be available.”

“So hopefully things go well today, and then he’ll be ready for the game.”

Considering that he’s factored into 2 out of their 3 goals Canada scored, and has a team-leading 25 defensive actions, he’s going to be key against Mexico in this game, at both ends of the pitch. 

Plus, as one of only two Canadians to have played against Mexico at the senior level (Zachary Brault-Guillard is the other), he’s going to provide valuable experience to this young squad, making him the player to watch in this one. 

To date, he’s arguably made a claim to be considered the player of the tournament, and playing out of his skin versus Mexico would only cement that status. 

Storylines:

Is it Dias time? 

But while Cornelius will be expected to do a lot of the heavy-lifting defensively for this Canadian team, they’ll need a few players to step up offensively to ease the load off of him and his backline. 

Tajon Buchanan and Theo Bair are two such players that could help, especially in terms of end product, but they need service, something they’ve been starved of in the last two games. 

That might change in this one, though, as it sounds like 18-year-old Sporting CP product Lucas Dias might start this game, which after impressing in 3 cameos off of the bench in the group stages, should inject some life into the Canadian attack. 

As Biello explained on Saturday, Dias was held back at first due to a slow start to camp, one where he missed a chunk of time on the pitch due to self-isolation protocols, but he feels like he’s more than up to speed now. 

“Yeah, I think with Lucas in terms of our pre-camp, we had some players in isolation (with) some of our protocols and he missed a lot of training throughout the week in the pre-camp,” Biello explained. “And we really wanted to now bring him into the games and give him some minutes, but for us, it was important to not just throw him into games without too much training, because of some of the protocols.”

“So now we feel that he’s gained experience, he’s got a taste of what it feels like in these international games, we saw what he could do. So he becomes a for sure an option. His ability to get out of situations, everything that I’ve seen from him at Sporting and when I brought him in, he’s been able to show that he’s a young player, a player that’s hungry.”

Hungry enough to start in his eyes? 

“Now we feel he’s gained enough with minutes to be ready possibly to start,” Biello confirmed. 

Bring the intensity:

And although a lot of focus will be on team tactics and individual difference-makers, and rightfully so, it’ll be interesting to see how Canada handles the mental side of this battle. 

Having clawed through the group stages, they’ve been battle-tested already, putting them in mid-tournament form already. 

Contrasted to Mexico, who have cruised through this tournament to date, they’ve yet to really ramp up the gears, which could be tough to quickly do against a team already roaring and ready to go. 

So for Canada, they need to make sure they come out and take advantage of Mexico if they start slow, punishing them for their mistakes if that happens. 

That’s not to say that Mexico will necessarily start slow, and even if they do they’ll probably adjust quickly, but Canada needs to make them pay if that doesn’t end up being the case. 

Get the crowd out of it:

Plus, following up on the last point, with this being a home game for Mexico, meaning that some fans will be allowed in the stadium, a strong Canadian start could have multiple benefits, including getting the Mexican fans out of the game early. 

If not, it won’t be easy to manage that energy over the course of 90 minutes, as Mexican teams have this way of feeding off of their fan support in big games. 

The more doubt that Canada can put in their minds, the more that it will help them, which should make that a goal for them to focus on early in the game.

Projected XIs:

Canada: 

Mexico:

Looking Forward:

So now, Canada will look to do something that they’ve failed to do in either of the last 2 CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournaments; beat Mexico in the semi-finals to make the Olympics. 

They haven’t been particularly close in any of those games, either, so they’ll want to look to at least keep it close, giving them a chance to pull off the upset. 

It won’t be easy, but with everyone pegging them as (rightful) underdogs, they do have the advantage of heading into this game knowing that the expectations for them won’t be particularly high. 

If they can channel that and turn it into fuel, that could help them, so that could prove to be a positive for them to focus on.  

In their quest to put nearly 4 decades of struggles in this tournament behind them, they’ll look to do what they can to change history, so look for them to do what they can to give themselves an edge. 

They’ve got nothing to lose, and all to win, giving them every reason to just go out there and leave everything on the field and see what happens. 

That’s all that one could expect from them at this point, so they’ll aim to do that, and just go from there. 

Up Next: Canada vs Mexico, Sunday, March 28th, 2021, 18:00 PDT, 21:00 EDT (Jalisco Stadium, Guadalajara) 

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer

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