by Jerrad Peters (@peterssoccer)
Hands up if you wrote off Canada ahead of last weekend’s group stage match against the United States. Thought so. You can put them down now.
Not that I somehow foresaw a result that, in the long, exasperating history of Canadian soccer, stands as one of the Great White North’s great feel-good moments. Hardly. Like just about everyone else, I figured Joe Corona would cut the Canadian defense to shreds, that Mikkel Diskerud would dictate everything that happened in the centre of the park.
In my match preview for the Winnipeg Free Press I wrote that “unless the team plays with something approaching intensity” they’d be comprehensively deconstructed. “The players need to show more ‘compete;’ the coaching staff needs to give them a chance at success,” I wrote. “That means playing players in their regular positions and making meaningful on-the-fly adjustments to content with the opponent.”
And that’s exactly what happened. In the day off between Canada’s pitiful 0-0 draw with El Salvador and their showdown with the Americans, manager Tony Fonseca and his staff made several important adjustments that gave their side a chance to win from the get-go in Nashville.
Some of those changes involved personnel (enter Uruguay-based duo Andres Fresenga and Lucas Cavallini and 17-year-old midfield marvel Samuel Piette); others were strategic and produced a group of players who pressed the opposition ball-carrier, defended as a unit and didn’t break concentration for a second.
No doubt Fonseca will have been planning more adjustments after Monday’s disappointing draw with Cuba. None of the lessons learned against the United States were carried over into that match, and as a result Canada have Mexico standing in their way of Olympic qualification instead of Honduras.
The opponent: This is the skeleton of the side that represented Mexico, performing admirably, in last summer’s Copa America. They lost all three games they played in Argentina by only a single goal and even took the lead against Chile before capitulating in the second half.
Nine of manager Luis Fernando Tena’s players were at that tournament, testing their abilities against the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Edinson Cavani. Striker Alan Pulido went straight from the Copa America to the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia, where he scored three goals as Mexico won a bronze medal. Erik Torres was also a part of that side.
A 19-year-old forward who plays his club football for Chivas Guadalajara, he has been compared favourably with Chivas alumni Javier Hernandez, who has 13 goals for Manchester United this season.
In defense Mexico are anchored by captain Hiram Mier, whose Monterrey side is currently involved in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals. Mier, 22, was also a part of the Copa America side, as was central defensive partner Davin Chavez, also of Monterrey.
Cruz Azul winger Javier Aquino was at the Copa America as well and will provide a formidable matchup for Canada left-back Russell Teibert, while Marco Fabian—who wears the number 10 shirt for Mexico—will require constant attention as he distributes the ball to his exceptionally talented teammates.
Where Canada can succeed: Against the United States, captain Nana Attakora and Doneil Henry were partnered together in the centre of defense and performed admirably. Fonseca will likely reunite the pair after resting Attakora, who was on a yellow card, against Cuba.
In the centre of the park Piette and Philippe Davies, who also impressed against the Americans, will have to limit the amount of time Fabian spends on the ball. The two Canadians rendered Corona useless after 45 minutes in Nashville, and a similarly imperious performance in midfield will be required again against Mexico.
Up front, Canada will sorely miss the quick, clever presence of Randy Edwini-Bonsu, who is serving out a two-match ban. Babayele Sodade is also unavailable after tearing his ACL in the early moments against the United States, and Marcus Haber has disappointed so far at this tournament. Still, Fonseca has options.
Cavallini, who has operated as a support forward from the right flank, could be deployed alone up top, although Canada’s chances hardly rest on long-ball attempts to a lone centre-forward. A combination of Cavallini, Evan James and perhaps Carl Haworth could be deployed as a counter-attacking partnership that pounces when Piette and Davies manage to dispossess their opponents.
In any event, the most important thing for the Canadian attackers is that they give themselves options moving forward. No one’s expecting extended spells of possession in the attacking third, but if the ball-carrier can have a reliable outlet going forward it will make Mexico’s defensive job that much more difficult.
The reality: This Mexican side is a team of men playing in a competition of boys. On paper, and based on previous accomplishments, they are easily the best squad in the competition and are fully deserving of a place in the Olympic group stage draw on April 24.
That said, we’ve all written off Canada before. It would be foolish to assume it’s all done and dusted before a ball is kicked in Kansas City. The Canadians are clear underdogs, but intensity, organization and good preparation have served them well before in this tournament. There’s no reason why it couldn’t once again.
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