Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Overcoming the odds, or, why Canada is now Mexico's Enemy No.1

Against the odds, the Canadian men's U-23 soccer team pulled off an amazing 5-0 win over group-leading Guatemala Sunday to keep their dreams of qualifying for this summer's Beijing Olympics alive. Although they were last in the group heading into the match, with only one point from two games, the win proved to be just enough to advance to the next stage. It came at the expense of perennial power Mexico, though, who scored five goals of their own in a win over Haiti that drew them level with the Canadians on points: the one goal the Mexicans gave up proved their undoing though, as Canada squeaked through with a +4 goal differential to Mexico's +3.

It's impressive that the Canadians were able to produce so much offense. Usually, soccer teams from this country score a goal or two and then tenaciously defend, perhaps cautioned off from going for the jugular by fear of dispelling the "polite Canadians" stereotype. In international competitions like this tournament though, where a single goal can make the difference between going on or going home, every opportunity to run up the score must be seized. Perhaps Canada is starting to learn that.

It's also great to see some of our younger players coming along. This summer, I watched Tosaint Ricketts, who had two goals for Canada against Guatemala, pour in a hat-trick at Richardson Stadium in a friendly against the U.S. U-20 team. Ricketts is a supremely gifted striker with incredible bursts of speed, and it was disappointing that he wasn't able to do more in the U-20 team's undignified goalless exit from the U-20 World Cup last summer. That team wasn't very impressive in the tournament, but several of their players like Ricketts, Toronto FC's Andrea Lombardo and Will Johnson (who also tallied twice against Guatemala) have gone on to make an impact with the U-23 side. The future looks considerably less bleak than it did last July.

What can't be neglected is how close they came to failure, though. In fact, if it hadn't been for Kyle Hall's 90th minute goal and some several key saves from Haitian goalkeeper Johnny Placide, it would be the Mexicans moving on. Canadian coach Nick Dasovic (a former player and coach with the Vancouver Whitecaps) had high praise for Placide afterwards. "He was unbelievable," he told CanadaSoccer.com. "He was on fire. I don’t know where he plays, but he definitely deserves a contract somewhere in the world." Placide stopped a penalty and other good chances, and Mexico also missed several chances, including two 5 on 0 breaks. As Larry Millson wrote on the Globe on Soccer blog, "Couldn’t believe the chances Mexico missed. There was the ball that went straight up off a Mexican foot and over the goal instead of in on a gimme from in front and the missed penalty kick and that is just a couple." If any of those had gone in, or Canada hadn't found an amazing outburst of offense, it would be the Mexicans advancing to Thursday's final against the U.S. Dasovic didn't even think that the Canadians could pull off such a lopsided victory. "Not in my wildest imagination did I think we would win that big," he said.

The sad thing in this though is that Mexico's Olympic dreams are crushed. Based on past results, they're probably more deserving than Guatemala or Honduras, the fourth semi-finalist. The vagaries of the pool system, a poor performance against Guatemala and a draw with the Canadians combined to leave them on the outside looking in, though. As Millson related, there are many passionate Mexican fans who had already planned to travel to the semifinals, never believing that their team wouldn't make it. There also have been plenty of calls for the head of coach Hugo Sanchez. As Jeff Blair reports on the Globe on Baseball blog, this is pretty much a national crisis in Mexico. "I watched Contacto Deportivo on Monday night and while I don't know Spanish beyond Dora The Explorer, I do know that there were a boatload of 'person on the street interviews' about Mexico's shocking exit from Olympic qualifying and on at least a couple of occasions I could hear the word 'Canada' spit out derisively," he wrote. "It's nice we're pissing people off, no?"

As Blair wrote, it's good to see our nation put off our lovable-losers tag for a couple of tournaments (this one and the baseball team's Olympic qualification come to mind). The real question is if we can keep that up, though: as the Globe's Ben Knight noted before the Guatemala game, there are still many issues with the national soccer programs, first and foremost a lack of corporate support. The Canadian Soccer Association will need to get their ducks in a row and start obtaining the financial backing required for on-field success at all levels. If they can get their own house in order, it may be a lot easier to convince corporations to tie their image to Canadian soccer.

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