On Sunday, the Canadian U23s came one step short of Olympic qualification by a score of 2-0.
Undoubtedly this was a disappointment, considering the amount of young talent we’re beginning to uncover in Canada. Let’s look back at the major takeaways from every game and point out the highlights.
Canada vs El Salvador - March 19
What a way for Canada to start off strong. Unfortunately, this was the only game in which Canada would have a winning score line. Still, there was a lot to be excited about after this performance.
The standout performer was definitely Tajon Buchanan. A stunning brace from the New England Revolution player set the Canadians on the right path, and he demonstrated his attacking talents, emphasizing that right-back isn’t necessarily his position of choice.
It wasn’t just Buchanan that stood out, as there were a lot of good performers on the day. Baldisimo showed that it wasn’t just a flash in the pan with his performances last year, and he continued to show some brilliance alongside his Whitecaps midfield partner, Pat Metcalfe.
At the beginning of each half, Canada looked shaky, but following this period of play, they seemed to find a groove and confidence that allowed them to hold onto their lead. A 2-0 victory is how the match would finish, putting them second in the group behind Honduras, who won 3-0 against a Haiti squad that had ten men on the field during the beginning of the match AND were not fielding a proper keeper. This was all due to some late COVID test results on behalf of the Haitian FF, literally only having ten people on the field - all players.
It was unfortunate for Haiti, and even more so for Canada, as this game would provide the goal difference that put Honduras above Les Rouges at the end of the group stage.
Canada vs Haiti - March 22
Spirits were high coming into the second game, and all eyes were on Tajon Buchanan after his impressive display in the first game. If Canada were to get a victory here, it would help them secure one of the top two spots and automatic qualification to the knockout stage, regardless of the results of the Honduras-El Salvador game. Not to mention, there was some level of pride to play for considering Canada’s recent competitive history with Haiti (even though that was at the full men’s level).
Things looked bright to begin with, as Canada started on a much better foot than they did in their first group game, going forwards dangerously while also tracking back on defense. Things looked like they were going to be defined by fine margins, as for every chance Canada put on target, Haiti also seemed to match.
Buchanan took a fair number of shots himself, but Alan Jérôme, the Haitian keeper, managed to deny some good opportunities for him to take the golden boot back to New England.
Cornelius showed his strength in distribution this game, which was as strong of an asset as his defending, leading one to clearly be able to see that he wouldn’t be backing down from the fight for a starting spot in Vancouver. It was a very pleasing sight to see, especially considering that Canada had run into a center-back crisis coming into these games, as Cornelius and Montgomery were the only two on the roster after Thomas Meilleur-Giguère pulled out due to injury. This was made worse by the fact that Montgomery had picked up a knock in the previous game and wasn’t selected for this one, with former Whitecaps and midfielder turned defender David Norman Jr. in his place.
Canada kept firing, but the ball would not go in, and as said before, for every Canada shot came a shot from Haiti, and there were a lot of those to go around. Luckily, the standout performer of this game was keeper James Pantemis. Having made only three appearances for Montreal in the previous season, one could be understandably weary of the abilities of the Quebec-born shot stopper, but once again, it appears as though CF Montreal may have been overlooking a potential gem within their ranks. Die hard MLS aficionados may remember that a certain Maxime Crépeau also played only three league games for the Montreal based side, and in this match, it seemed that Pantemis had channeled the spirit of his senior. He showed great reflexes and decision-making, and Pantemis was able to parry all of Haiti’s shots on target.
At the time, this rightly may have raised questions as to why Montreal didn’t see fit to play Pantemis during 2020, as his game seemed to have improved in strides over the past twelve months. Through an inspired performance at the back, the game was left 0-0, and Canada remained in second place with 4 points, only behind on goal differential to Honduras, who had tied 1-1 with bitter rivals El Salvador.
Canada vs Honduras - March 25
Canada knew what was on the line in the final game of the group stage. They had to win in order to finish atop the group and earn a matchup with the USA, who finished second in their group to Mexico. A tie or a loss would all but guarantee a match against the CONCACAF giants.
For many Canadians, this game may have been an afterthought considering the senior team’s heroics over Bermuda earlier, but it still promised a crucial fixture, and to be completely honest, a more energetic and exciting game. This game was going to be a fiercely fought contest, with both teams biting, but holding back a bit to avoid unnecessary suspension to any players before the semifinals.
Canada got their attack started right from the first whistle, and you could see the pattern of the previous game beginning to develop again in the sense of a back and forth game. Canada sent waves of attacks and it paid off early on, with Derek Cornelius getting a massive header to put the team ahead 1-0, and in pole position in their group.
As soon as they scored the goal and Honduras kicked off though, you could feel it coming. At this point, we are probably all too familiar with what “it” was. It happens in every game where a team views themselves as mentally inferior to another, even though it may be that both teams are close to equally matched. We’ve seen this with the senior team, and we’ve seen this on display in the CONCACAF Champions league, where MLS teams struggle against foreign opposition once the deadlock is broken.
Sure enough, the Canada team that kicked off after that goal was not the same one that had scored it, gone was the confidence, replaced with the familiar uncertainty that is frustrating to see. Honduras equalized three minutes later and Canada seemed unable to recover.
Canada was on the back foot after that, settling for defending against the attacks, rather than building up any meaningful play themselves. If it wasn’t for Pantemis’ and Cornelius’ continued inspired performances, perhaps Honduras could have gotten something more out of the match.
By the end of the game, the players looked visibly exhausted, and the substitutions on both sides seemed to frustrate their opposition. Unfortunately, due to the extensive defensive duties, Cornelius picked up an injury and had to be taken off the field. This left Canada to try to close out the game without a central defender.
A win looked distant in the dying embers of the game, and Canada had to settle for a draw. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine that many Canadian fans weren’t happy with the Canada that showed up in this game, as it seemed to be that Canada was regressing in playstyle over the course of the tournament. Canada had to sort this out if they were going to get a result against Mexico.
Canada vs Mexico - March 28
It was all set for another double header matchday, as Canada was set to play Mexico after the senior squad faced off against the Cayman Islands. The fatigue from watching so many games in a short amount of time, along with the obvious David and Goliath matchup that was the Olympic Qualifiers Semi-Final, could have turned people off from tuning in. In turn of events though, the senior national team’s match was postponed until the following day, so anyone who was left feeling robbed of International action could have turned this game on as well.
The initial defensive formation likely caused many to worry that Canada was planning to play a negative, bunker-down game against Mexico. Another intriguing decision was the start of breakout player and possible future Canadian international Lucas Dias. This wasn’t puzzling in the sense that he was included, but rather in the sense that he wasn’t started in any game before this, as Dias had played exceptionally whenever he was on the pitch, proving that he had experience well above his age. Between him and Buchanan, the bulk of Canada’s positive plays came from these two youngsters.
Unfortunately those were few and far between throughout the match. While yes, you could feel some of the aforementioned ‘small-team’ mentality from the Canadians, they seemed to be able to handle it well, and everyone seemed to have a role to play and a plan of action. It wasn’t out of the question that in one of Mexico’s attacking plays, Canada could intercept and launch a quick counter from one of the wings and have either take a shot at net.
Mexico, of course, dominated the first half, but Canada showed heart and solidity, not broken by the constant wave of Mexican attacks. It seemed that Canada had the tools to possibly scale this mountain when the first half was finished, they just needed some solid direction in that dressing room team talk. The half was also bookended by a bust-up between both sets of players that saw Buchanan and Vladimir Loroña both get yellows. Maybe it was this event that shook the players, or a misguided tactic change, but when Canada took the field once again, it was the same team that many were afraid was going to turn up that day.
What seemed to be an improved pressure-handling performance from Canada as compared to the match against Honduras was turned into arguably the worst half of football played by the team during the entire competition. There’s not much to say about the game after the half, it’s a story that’s well known to Canadians at this point, with Canada collapsing mentally and letting the other team take advantage of this fragility. In the 58th minute, a miscommunication between defenders caused the ball to be played back to Pantemis, who was quickly pressured by the Mexican forwards. Pantemis at this moment made his first major mistake of the tournament, leading him to pass the ball on the ground directly in front of his eighteen yard box, nowhere near a teammate and landing softly in the feet of a Mexican player, who began a quick counter to score what seemed to be a killing blow to the Canadians.
The misery of the Canadians was not momentary, as a couple of minutes later, as a result of dashed confidence, Pantemis failed to jump for a free kick ball that he could have easily caught, and which the Mexicans capitalized upon. After that, Canada just seemed not to be able to conjure anything up, and Mexico handed Canada their first loss of the tournament with a scoreline of 2-0.
Overall, it was a disappointing showing following a strong start by the Canadians, who definitely played a more negative style as the games went on. There were standout performers this tournament though, as Dias, Buchanan, Pantemis, Cornelius, and Baldisimo all made powerful statements of intent that their clubs will be monitoring closely.
This team could have done more, and likely even more so with their full U23 lineup in play. Unfortunately, Canada’s Olympic hopes will have to wait another cycle now. The silver lining to this is that without the Olympics, Canada’s Senior National Team will have the necessary reinforcements and depth that could be needed this summer with World Cup Qualifying and the Gold Cup on the Horizon.