Cavalry’s Norman Jr. reflects on Olympic qualifiers: ‘It’s different when you’re playing for the Maple Leaf’

Just over a week after Canada’s loss to Mexico at the Concacaf Olympic qualifiers, the sting hasn’t quite dissipated for the Canadian players, most of whom have now scattered to their various homes and club teams.

For Cavalry FC’s David Norman Jr., who has spent his time since returning in quarantine in Vancouver, it’s taken a while to get over the disappointment of coming so close — holding Mexico to a 0-0 scoreline at halftime of the semifinal — and just falling short. Still, there are no regrets.

“Being able to look back on it now a week after, 10 days after, the disappointment’s still there; I think some of the frustration has worn off a bit, I’m able to look back and really analyze and take away the positives from it,” Norman told this week.

“You look back at it, the experience (Mexico) had — some of their players that play every week in the Mexican first division, that have played for the national team — and we have good players, and quality as well in our own right, but most of us haven’t been playing for four, five months, so we have to take that into consideration as well.”

Although a sizeable chunk of Canada’s team had a modicum of familiarity from past youth camps, including the 2018 Toulon Tournament, it was still a fairly new group. Their six training sessions before playing the first match against El Salvador were, really, all they had to get up to speed.

Despite entering the semifinal game as clear underdogs, Canada held their own. So much so, in fact, that the unlikely feat of beating Mexico in Guadalajara didn’t seem quite so impossible.

“Going into halftime, the group was buzzing for the most part,” Norman recounted. “We kept Mexico at bay for 45 minutes, stuck to the plan, pressed them at certain points, sat back at certain points, I think we frustrated them. And then it was six or seven minutes into the second half when they scored two, really hard to come back after that.

“The belief in the group that we were gonna be the first team to beat Mexico on their own soil, make some history, qualify for the Olympics — the belief was there from the end of the Honduras game to the start of the game, but once we get to that point in the second half it definitely takes the wind out of the sails.”

Looking back on the tournament as a whole, Norman sees a long list of positives — both for himself and for the Canadian program as a whole.

When he was first called into the Canadian squad, Norman expected to play in his natural midfield position. But, considering recent suggestions that Norman might be deployed as a central defender, it’s not all too surprising that he ended up in Canada’s backline, especially after injuries to Thomas Meilleur-Giguère and Callum Montgomery.

“With our conversations with Mauro (Biello) and the staff leading up to the tournament, they know I can play both midfield or centre-back,” Norman explained. “They had me coming down into the camp predominantly as a central midfielder, and that’s kind of what I was preparing for, and then a few injuries, a few knocks, all of a sudden things happen and I went in at halftime (of the first game), and I think I played every minute after that.

“It definitely happened fast, but looking back at it now I’m glad that it happened, and I got some good reps, if you want, in at centre-back in high-level games against good players. I think that’s gonna set me up really nicely for the CPL season ahead.”

Having gotten this taste of competitive action for Canada, Norman is champing at the bit to continue his involvement in national team circles. Now that he’s demonstrated his diverse skillset on a greater stage, it’s possible that John Herdman and his senior team staff could have an eye on the 22-year-old.

“It’s different when you’re playing for the Maple Leaf, you’re wearing that on your chest,” he said. “Just having that hunger and need to go to Calgary, keep myself on the mind of these coaches and show them that I’m still one of the better young Canadian players in this country.”

All in all, Norman maintains that the Olympic qualifiers were a positive showing for Canada, and definite cause for optimism. He pointed out that, even with some players missing — consider, for instance, what Theo Corbeanu might’ve done had he been in the under-23 camp rather than the senior camp — they still came incredibly close.

“To think that the group that we did have down there still did a fantastic job, and we were 30 minutes away from qualifying for the Olympics or pushing Mexico to that level, I think it does show the depth of Canadian soccer right now, where we’re at,” Norman said.

“Taking into consideration the two results for the men’s team I think it’s an exciting time for sure… The players we had down there are hungry, we all want to be playing for the men’s senior team, we all want to be playing every minute back at our clubs, so it’s a good healthy competition between players — I think the most competition there’s been in a Canadian pool.”

With this experience in hand, Norman will surely have plenty to offer the Cavalry lineup in the upcoming CPL season, knowing that the national team staff will be keeping a close eye.