Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, left, grabs the ball away from Vancouver Whitecaps defender Derek Cornelius, right, during the second half of an MLS soccer match in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Steve Dykes

Canadian men face stiff challenge in Honduras at CONCACAF Olympic qualifier

Canadian men face stiff challenge in Honduras at CONCACAF Olympic qualifier

A win or draw against Honduras on Thursday and Canada is through to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship.

And if Haiti and El Salvador (both 0-1-1) tie in the earlier matchup, Canada and Honduras (both 1-0-1) will go into their final Group B game having already secured a berth in the final four of the eight-country tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Their match then will be about who wins the group while determining their opposition in Sunday’s semifinals, which will decide the two countries that represent North and Central America and the Caribbean at the Tokyo Olympics.

For Canada coach Mauro Biello, the permutations are something for his staff to concern themselves with — factoring in the likes of fatigue, injuries and yellow cards.

The goal is less complicated for the players.

“The mindset has to be always to win,” Biello told reporters in a virtual news conference Wednesday.

But Biello conceded that the Haiti-El Salvador result will influence him if his team is assured of moving on before kickoff.

Mexico (3-0-0) and the U.S. (2-1-0) had already advanced to the semifinals before the Mexicans beat the Americans 1-0 Wednesday night to win Group A.

“For sure, we have to know and understand all these scenarios and have the solutions so we can make those decisions as needed,” he said.

“We don’t want to enter that next round on empty versus one of the two tops teams,” he added. “That’s where we have to be good at managing the game once we know the clarity of that game before us. Could there be subs at the half? What is our game going to look like? Where are we at? Do we push this game to try to finish top of the group. Or is it best to have freshness?

“Look, these are what we’re going through as a staff. It’s not easy because again there’s so many factors … For me to tell you something that’s black and white, I can’t. It’s not right now. But we are looking at different scenarios and what is the best solution for us at that point.”

Both Mexico and the U.S. will present formidable challenges to the Group B survivors.

“Two very good teams. Two teams that have a lot of depth,” Biello said.

“We really haven’t focused in on that,” he added. “What we do know is that either/or will be very difficult, that (semifinal) game for sure. There’s a little bit more familiarity with the Americans in terms of all the players that play in the MLS. But for me right now, I’m really focusing on getting there.

“I know everybody wants to look at what’s that next game but the job is not done yet. So we need to make sure that we take care of business against Honduras.”

Mexico and Honduras represented the region at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Mexico won gold nine years ago in London while Honduras finished fourth in Rio de Janeiro.

The Americans, like Canada, have yet to concede a goal at the competition.

The Canadian men have not qualified for the Olympics since 1984 when they lost to Brazil in a quarterfinal penalty shootout.

Of the 16 Olympic slots open to CONCACAF men’s teams since the 1984 Games, Mexico (5), the U.S. (5) and Honduras (4) have occupied 14 of them.

Canada is short on central defenders with Thomas Meilleur-Giguere going down with a knee injury on the eve of the tournament and Callum Montgomery forced to leave the opening game with an undisclosed injury.

David Norman Jr. has filled in at centre back alongside captain Derek Cornelius, who is playing on a yellow card. Another caution Thursday and the Vancouver Whitecap would miss the semifinal if Canada advances. Montgomery was due to undergo a fitness test later Wednesday.

“We do not have much flexibility there,” Biello said of is central defence options.

The 23-year-old Cornelius, who leads the squad with 13 senior caps, has been a big presence at the tournament.

“He’s the captain of our team for a reason,” said midfielder Patrick Metcalfe, a fellow Whitecap. “He’s been to many men’s national team camps. He’s played in very big games for this country.

“He’s experienced a lot playing for Canada and he’s kind of sharing those experiences will all of us.”

Ballou Tabla, Lucas Dias and Aidan Daniels are also on yellow cards for Canada. The group-game cautions will not factor into the knockout rounds.

Going into Thursday’s match, Honduras occupies first place in Group B on goal difference. Both teams had to settle for a single point last time out with Canada playing Haiti to a scoreless draw and Honduras settling for a 1-1 tie with El Salvador.

Thursday marks the third game in seven days for both Canada and Honduras in the heat and altitude of Guadalajara.

“I’d be lying if I said it was easy to play in these conditions,” said Metcalfe.

The CONCACAF qualifier was originally scheduled for last March but was delayed due to the pandemic. The age restriction that players have to be born after Jan. 1, 1997, remains the same.

—-

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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