CPLers Thomas Meilleur-Giguère and David Norman Jr. will try to help the Canadian men’s team qualify for the Olympics for the first time in 37 years.
On Wednesday, both Meilleur-Giguère (Pacific FC) and Norman Jr. (Cavalry FC ) were named to the Canadian under-23 team roster for the upcoming Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament, which runs from March 18-30 in Mexico.
Canada’s 20-man squad also features senior national team contributors Derek Cornelius, Zachary Brault-Guillard, Zorhan Bassong, Charles-Andreas Brym, Ballou Tabla, Marcus Godinho and Theo Blair.
Last month, Canada Soccer named its 50-man provisional roster, a list that featured 11 CPL players in total, including Diyaeddine Abzi, Noah Verhoeven and Chrisnovic N’sa of York United FC; Terran Campbell and Kadin Chung of Pacific FC; David Choinière of Forge FC; Mo Farsi of Cavalry FC; and Easton Ongaro and Shamit Shome of FC Edmonton. CF Montréal defender Karifa Yao, who will spend this season on loan at Cavalry), also made the provisional roster.
Canada is coached by Mauro Biello, an assistant to senior team coach John Herdman, and knows Meilleur-Giguère from their time together with the Montreal Impact.
“He had a very good tournament (at The Island Games)… He’s a competitor, he’s someone who wants to win every game, so there’s things that I know about Thomas that I felt he could come in and contribute to this team,” Biello told reporters via Zoom call.
Biello also previously worked with Norman Jr. at Canadian youth level, and cited the midfielder’s versatility as one of his strengths.
“We can use him at the back as a centre-back, we can use him as a holding midfielder. He’s a player who brings a certain experience, also,” Biello explained.
Meilleur-Giguère’s call-up for Olympic qualifying duty comes after a successful first CPL season for the defender under the tutelage of Pacific coach Pa-Modou Kah.
“My time at Pacific has given me everything. Pa has been a mentor and has taken care of us a lot, individually and as a team, and for me he is a great mentor,” Meilleur-Giguère said.
“He helped me a lot with the little details that sometimes you don’t realize are important. And the chance to play with the club at The Island Games last year was a great showcase for us, and for me personally to show what I can do in a system that believes in me and gives me a chance to be at my best.”
Meilleur-Giguère, a 23-year-old native of Quebec, signed with Pacific last January and was named to Canada’s 50-man roster when it was first drawn up last spring before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
The young centre-back made his CPL debut on Aug. 15, 2020 against HFX Wanderers FC, and he went on to appear in all 10 games for Pacific at The Island Games in PEI, logging a team-high 900 minutes.
A product of the Montreal Impact academy, Meilleur-Giguère played for FC Montreal in the USL in 2016 before joining the Ottawa Fury the next year. He signed with the Montreal Impact in 2017, but was loaned back to Ottawa. Meilleur-Giguère never ended up playing an MLS game for the Impact, and parted ways with the club prior to the 2020 season.
Meilleur-Giguère also played for Canada at youth level, making three appearances at the 2017 Concacaf U-20 Championship held in Costa Rica.
“I’ve come far from the Montreal Impact where they didn’t give me a chance so I (came to) the CPL. I love my team, I worked really hard with them, and just to see that it’s possible to come back like this (is great). I think it’s nice to prove that the CPL and Pacific are doing really well, they helped me to get to another level and I was really happy to see I was still part of the (Canadian national team) plans,” Meilleur-Giguère said.
Norman Jr., a 22-year-old native of B.C., recently signed a multi-year deal with Cavalry after spending the 2020 season in MLS with Inter Miami.
The son of former Canadian international David Norman Sr., Norman Jr. began in the Vancouver Whitecaps youth program at the age of nine. Following one year at NCAA Division I side Oregon State University in 2016, where he led the team in assists as a freshman, Norman Jr. signed with Whitecaps FC 2 of the USL.
The six-foot-two midfielder was named Player of the Year for Whitecaps 2 after leading the team in assists, chances created and duels won. After signing with the Whitecaps senior team in December of 2017, Norman Jr. was loaned to Scottish side Queen of the South.
After the completion of his loan, the Whitecaps traded Norman Jr. to Inter Miami. But before joining the MLS club he was sent on loan again, this time to Pacific FC, where he played in eight games for the Tridents during the 2019 CPL season.
Due to a pre-season injury, he didn’t make an appearance for Miami in 2020 and his option was declined, paving the way for him to join the Cavs as a free agent.
On the international stage, Norman Jr. has represented Canada at the U-15 and U-17 levels, and with Canada’s U-23 side that featured in the 2018 Toulon Tournament.
Concacaf rules stipulate all players must be born on or after 1 January 1997 to be eligible to compete, although the actual Olympic competition allows for three overage players.
The Canadians kick off Group B play at the Olympic qualifiers on March 19 when they take on El Salvador. Canada will also face Haiti (March 22) and Honduras (March 25), with all games to take place in Guadalajara and Zapopan. Group A consists of Mexico, the United States, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.
Canada must finish in the top two of its group to advance to the semifinals on March 28, with only the two tournament finalists earning qualification for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. Canada has not qualified for the Olympics since 1984 in Los Angeles.
This eight-team qualifying tournament was originally scheduled to be played last spring, but like 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it was postponed until this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Olympic soccer competition is scheduled to run from July 21 to Aug. 7
Biello likes Canada’s chances of ending its lengthy Olympic drought by qualifying for Tokyo, pointing to his team’s depth as one of its assets.
“I’m happy with this 20-man roster. I think we have a good balance of experienced players, players that have been in the environment who have men’s national experience. There’s also a good mix of players, some youthful players who have done well in MLS, who showed some really good form last year,” Biello said.
He later added: “I think we have a team that can compete. For sure, (Group B) is not going to be easy; there’s going to be tough games. … I’m expecting to grow throughout this tournament, and I think if we are able to grow it’ll give us the best shot to finish in the top two and then take that final game to get us to the Olympics.”
Goalkeepers: James Pantemis (CF Montréal), Matthew Nogueira (CS Maritimo), Sebastian Breza (FC Bologna)
Defenders: Zachary Brault-Guillard (CF Montréal), Zorhan Bassong (CF Montréal), Thomas Meilleur-Giguère (Pacific FC), Derek Cornelius (Vancouver Whitecaps), Marcus Godinho (FSV Zwickau), Callum Montgomery (Minnesota United FC)
Midfielders: Michael Baldisimo (Vancouver Whitecaps), David Norman (Cavalry FC), Aidan Daniels (Oklahoma City Energy), Ryan Raposo (Vancouver Whitecaps), Patrick Metcalfe (Vancouver Whitecaps), Lucas Dias (Sporting CP U-23)
Forwards: Tajon Buchanan (New England Revolution), Charles-Andreas Brym (Royal Mouscron), Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla (CF Montréal), Kris Twardek (Jagiellonia Białystok), Theo Bair (Vancouver Whitecaps)