The Olympic drought continues for the Canadian men’s team.
Canada’s under-23 side suffered a 2-0 loss to Mexico in Sunday’s semifinals of the Concacaf qualifying tournament, as its hopes were dashed of playing at the Olympics for the first time in 37 years.
With this win at Guadalajara’s Estadio Jalisco, Mexico clinched one of two Olympic berths that were on offer at this qualifying competition. Honduras beat the United States 2-1 in Sunday’s other semifinal to punch its ticket for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. Mexico and Honduras will meet in Tuesday’s tournament final.
Canada’s last qualified for the Olympics in 1984 in Los Angeles where it bowed out of the quarter-finals via a penalty shootout loss to Brazil. The Canadians’ other Olympic appearances came in 1976 in Montreal (a group stage exit), and in St. Louis in 1904 when it won gold – Canada was represented at the three club-team competition by Galt F.C.
The Reds went undefeated in the group stage at this tournament (a win and two draws) and conceded just one goal. But they met their match against the heavily-favoured Mexican side, whose players have combined for 88 caps with the senior side – by contrast, Canadian players have 31 senior team appearances between them. Canada is now 0-5-2 against Mexico at the under-23 level in Concacaf Olympic qualifying since 1992.
“I thought we had our tactics right. We were frustrating them, not really giving them chances. It’s unfortunate; we had to be perfect against a team like that,” Canadian coach Mauro Biello told reporters after the game.
He later added: “The boys are disappointed, but they played a helluva shift; (we’re) a team that was together for six days, a team that had to come together in such a short period of time… I give credit to a lot of those boys in the dressing room.”
Olympic qualification was the objective, but despite falling short, Biello said there were positives for Canada at this tournament.
“The end in mind in this program to have an alignment from the men’s national team all the way down (to youth level). For me, it was to build a foundation with the group and graduate some of these players to move on to (senior level),” Biello said.
“There’s some good players who had some good performances out there… Those are positives.”
Biello made three lineup changes on Sunday, most notably giving a start to 18-year-old Lucas Dias, who was used off the bench in each of team’s three group-stage games. Dias replaced Ballou Tabla and played up front alongside Charles Andreas-Brym, who started instead of Theo Bair. Also, captain Derek Cornelius started on the bench after being subbed out in the 73rd minute of Canada’s previous match due to injury. Callum Montgomery took his place in the middle of defence beside Cavalry FC’s David Norman Jr.
Mexico dominated the first half, out-passing Canada by a wide margin (196-77), and enjoying 65 per cent possession. They also outshot the Canadians 6-2, with the Reds’ first attempt on goal not coming until the 41st minute –Tajon Buchanan’s ambitious shot from 30 yards out went well over the crossbar. Canada showed glimpses of danger on the counter-attack, but offered very little else when going forward.
Canadian goalkeeper James Pantemis was kept busy through the opening 45 minutes. He made a great kick save at the near-post on a dangerous shot by Mexico’s Roberto Alvarado. Pantemis also made a pair of solid stops by rushing out to deny Uriel Antuna inside the box.
Pantemis had been outstanding for Canada at this tournament before that error, so Norman Jr. wasn’t going to throw him under the bus.
“You can’t put anything on James. He’s been a rock the whole tournament. He kept us in the game against El Salvador and the second half against Haiti (in the first round)… He’s a quality plater,” Norman Jr. said.
Mexico’s persistent attack continued to be thwarted by Canada’s bend-but-don’t-break defence at the start of the second half until the breakthrough finally came in the 57th minute. A disastrous clearance by Pantemis landed at the feet of Carlos Rodríguez, who played a smart pass into the box for Antuna. The Mexican attacker expertly took the feed and scored his third goal of the tournament by firing past Pantemis.
The hosts doubled their lead off a free kick seven minutes later. Johan Vásquez’s header smacked the post, then hit Montgomery in the chest before deflecting off Vásquez and settling into the back of the net.
Canada was chasing shadows from that point forward in its vain attempt to get back into the game. York United FC fullback Diyaeddine Abzi came on as an 82nd substitute to make his first appearance of the tournament.
“I’m very proud of what the team did and we lost to the best team in Concacaf (Mexico), and it was a fight,” Biello said.