Canada has been drawn in a pool with Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti for the CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying tournament in Mexico in March.
Group A features Mexico, the U.S., Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.
The eight-team competition is scheduled to run for March 20 through April 1 in Guadalajara with two countries advancing to the 16-country Tokyo Olympics.
After round-robin play, the first- and second-place group finishers will advance to the semifinals. The semifinal winners will book their ticket for Tokyo.
“It’s a group that will be difficult, for sure, because there’s no easy game,” Olympic team coach Mauro Biello said from California where he is in camp with the senior team.
“It’s a draw we can work with,” he added.
Canada will have to finish in the top two in its group and then make it through likely Mexico, the U.S. or Costa Rica. The key question for Canada is whether it will be able to get its top under-23 talent for the qualifier.
While the CONCACAF tournament falls in a March 23-31 FIFA international window, the Canadian senior team will likely also be playing as it looks to collect valuable FIFA ranking points in its bid to crack the top six in CONCACAF and make the Hex, the easiest World Cup qualifying group in the region.
Star players like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David are eligible for the Olympic team but are firmly ensconced in the senior side.
Biello said the priority is the first team “which could mean some players will be representing the first team because that is the end line in terms of now qualifying for the World Cup.”
On the plus side, senior men’s coach John Herdman and Biello, a senior assistant coach who also heads up the men’s EXCEL U-18 to U-23 program, have seen a lot of eligible players eligible for the Olympic side in recent months.
Spain, Germany, Romania, France, the Ivory Coast, Egypt, South Africa and New Zealand have already qualified for the 2020 Olympics. Asian qualifying, currently underway will send three more teams in addition to host Japan. South American qualifying starts Jan. 18 with two teams advancing.
Canada has taken part in just two of the 24 Olympic men’s soccer competitions and has failed to qualify for the last eight Olympics. Its last participation came in 1984 in Los Angeles when CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean, was granted three spots instead of two with the U.S. an automatic participant as host.
Thursday’s draw was held at the Akron Stadium in Guadalajara.
Defending champion Mexico and Honduras were the two seeded teams in the draw. Honduras was seeded by virtue of a better record than the other six participating countries in the previous two editions of the tournament.
Mexico and Honduras represented the region at the 2016 games in Rio, with Honduras finishing fourth after a 3-2 loss to Nigeria. Host Brazil won Olympic gold with Germany runner-up.
For the purposes of Thursday’s draw, Pot 2 contained Canada and the U.S. with Central America’s Costa Rica and El Salvador in Pot 3, and the Caribbean’s Dominican Republic and Haiti in Pot 4.
Canada made it to the final eight of the ‘84 Games.
Four years after being knocked out in Olympic qualifying by Bermuda, Canada avenged the that loss with a 6-0 victory over Bermuda in May 1983. The Canadians went 4-1-3 in a 12-month qualifying campaign that included a 1-0 victory over Mexico at Royal Athletic Park in Victoria with Craig Martin scoring the deciding goal for newly hired coach Tony Waiters.
At the Olympics, the Canadian men went 1-1-1 in the group phase before losing a penalty shootout to eventual runner-up Brazil in the quarter-finals after the game finished tied 1-1 after extra time. The ‘84 Olympic team was the nucleus of the squad that made it to the World Cup final in 1986, featuring the likes of Bruce Wilson, Bob Lenarduzzi, Dale Mitchell and Ian Bridge with Waiters at the helm.
Before that, Canada got the nod as host of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal where it exited after losing both opening-round games.
Canada did compete at the 1904 Olympics but it was only a three-team tournament with two from the U.S. and a side from Galt (now Cambridge), Ont. The Canadian men won, defeating American opponents Christian Brothers College and St. Rose School by a combined score of 11-0.
Olympic men’s soccer qualifying has been an under-23 competition since 1992. Beginning in 1996, teams that qualified for the Olympics were allowed to field three players 23 over the age limit.