It hasn’t been a straight line, but the Concacaf Olympic Qualifiers are finally upon us.
They kick-off on Thursday with what might be the third most important game in the whole tournament between the USA and Costa Rica. That’s because this tournament is cruelly unforgiving. A single less can cook you. A single loss will cook you if it happens in the semi-final, but in the United States’ (and Costa Rica’s) case a loss in the tournament’s first game could put them behind the 8-ball immediately, especially with tournament favourite Mexico staring them down in the group.
Two groups of four, top two cross over to play in the one game that matters, the semi-final. Winners go to Tokyo. Simple as.
As for Canada, they’ve actually come closer to qualifying for this tournament than any other major event on the men’s side. Three times running they have been in the semi-final. They have lost to the Americans (Beijing), and Mexico twice (London and Rio) when it mattered most, however.
Can they take the final step this time?
Well…It’s a double-edged sword in that they have the easier path to the big game, but they will almost certainly have a difficult opponent in that game, if they were to get there.
That said, let’s break the line-up down before looking at the other teams involved.
GK - James Pantemis - Montréal
GK - Matthew Nogueira - Marítimo
GK - Sebastian Breza – Bologna
If this was a year ago, the keeping position would have been more settled with Dayne St. Clair likely taking up the starting spot. And, that’s a significant loss. If Canada get through this tournament, I’m certain he would be the favourite to take the position in Japan.
As it stands, Pantemis has some experience, most recently in the CanPL and Breza is an interesting player. He’s on the books in Serie A and was a regular starter for a Serie D promoted side as a teenager. Being at Bologna has led some to wonder if he might be in Montreal’s plans down the line.
DF - Zachary Brault-Guillard - Montréal
DF - Zorhan Bassong - Montréal
DF - Thomas Meilleur-Giguère - Pacific FC
DF - Derek Cornelius - Vancouver Whitecaps FC
DF - Marcus Godinho - FSV Zwickau
DF - Callum Montgomery - Minnesota United
The inclusion of Godinho may have a few Canadian fans experiencing PTSD from his nightmare of a game against Haiti in the last Gold Cup. That was coming on to two years ago now and it’s time to move on.
Cornelius and Brault-Guillard offer a lot more professional experience than Canada has had in the past in this tournament and makes the back-end less of a question at this level than at the full senior.
MF - Michael Baldisimo - Vancouver Whitecaps FC
MF - David Norman Jr. - Cavalry FC
MF - Aidan Daniels - Oklahoma City Energy
MF - Ryan Raposo - Vancouver Whitecaps FC
MF - Patrick Metcalfe - Vancouver Whitecaps FC
MF - Lucas Dias - Sporting CP
At just 18, Sporting product Lucas Dias is an intriguing addition to the roster that Canadian fans are excited to see in action. Who they have already seen in action are the Vancouver duo of Baldisimo and Raposo. Both can excelled at this level and will need to.
That said, much of Canada’s strength in the middle might be listed in the forward position. That includes one breakout player and one huge enigma…
FW - Tajon Buchanan - New England Revolution
FW - Charles-Andreas Brym - Mouscron
FW - Ballou Tabla - Montréal
FW - Kris Twardek - Jagiellonia Białystok
FW - Theo Bair - Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Buchanan was one of the most exiting young players in MLS last year and it’s a bit of a surprise that New England let him go as he expect to be a big part of the Revs plans in 2021. For Canada to be competitive, Buchanan has to be good.
If Canada excels, Ballou need to be a difference maker. There was a time when Ballou and Alphonso Davies were talked about in the same breath. That time has long past and he needs to establish himself at both club and country. As crazy as it seems, the Olympic tournament might be his last chance to prove that he was worth the hype.
This is a good team. They have a chance. Fitness will be a question – as it is with the Americans – but if they can gain some momentum, they could just end up in Tokyo this summer.
As for the rest of the teams, it’s always a little difficult to handicap any age tournament, even the u24. A lot depends on the strength of the talent pool available for the tournament. Form, fitness and familiarity play a bigger role than they might at the senior level.
So, don’t sleep on teams that have a lot of players on Central America club teams that you don’t much fancy.
And, usually, the team with the most Mexicans is standing in the confetti at the end of the day. I expect that again.
As for the second spot…The US’ roster is very similar to Canada’s, but it’s more experienced. If we’re being objective, they would be favourite in a semi-final match-up. Those with knowledge of Costa Rica’s talent suggest that the u23 group is better than the full senior team is in context. Honduras has been strong at this level for a couple of cycles too. This won’t be easy.
But, it will be possible.
The tournament starts Thursday, with Canada playing on Friday. You can watch on OneSoccer.