Soccer

Canada gears up for Olympic soccer qualifier against U.S.

Two days after doing the unthinkable and advancing to the semifinals of the CONCACAF men's Olympic soccer qualifying tournament, Canada now prepares to face its greatest and most important challenge.

Two days after doing the unthinkable and advancing to the semifinals of the CONCACAF men's Olympic soccer qualifying tournament, Canada now prepares to face its greatest and most important challenge.

Canada will take on the U.S. in the tournament semifinals in Nashville on Thursday for a berth in this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing.

Nick Dasovic's side arrived in "Music City USA" on Monday to begin training one day after surviving the group stage doubleheader, which will go down in the history of Canadian soccer as one for the ages.

Canada first had to beat undefeated Guatemala to have any chance of advancing and then hope that Mexico beat Haiti, yet didn't score more goals in its win, to ensure it advanced on a better goal differential.

Dasovic's squad did its part by thrashing Guatemala 5-0 and then settled in to watch the Mexico-Haiti game believing it had a comfortable, if not insurmountable, lead for "Los Tricolores" to overcome.

Instead, Mexico, which led only 1-0 at the half, poured on the offence in the second half with four goals, taking advantage of an inferior and increasingly tiring Haitian squad that was down one man for most of the match and then reduced to nine players with 10 minutes left in the game.

In the second half alone, Mexico had two five-on-zero breakaways, scoring on one and one three-on-zero foray that led to another goal. The 5-1 final score could have been much worse had Mexico star striker Cesar Villaluz not missed a penalty and Haiti goalkeeper Johnny Placide didn't make some huge saves late in the match.

Only the referee's whistle after five tense minutes of injury time prevented the inevitable sixth goal, sending a relieved and emotionally drained Canada to the semifinals.

'Something out of a movie'

"I think I died eight times," Dasovic said after the match. "It was like something out of a movie. We're through, though, we're going to Tennessee."

The U.S.'s road to the semifinals has been somewhat difficult, yet not as thrilling as Canada's. The Americans won Group A, based in Tampa, after tying Cuba 1-1 and defeating Honduras and Panama in close 1-0 games.

Scoring has been surprisingly difficult for the high-powered U.S., which has scored two of its three goals on penalty kicks.

Freddy Adu, who plays for Portugal's Benfica, has two of the Americans' three goals.

"It's been tough [to score]. The teams have lots of players behind the ball and it's been tough to penetrate them," U.S. striker Josmer (Jozy) Altidore said to the media in Nashville on Monday. 

"Credit those teams; they did what they had to do to try to keep our scoring ability and attack down. We're going to look to be aggressive like we are every game."

U.S. head coach Peter Nowak knows Canada won't provide any tonic for his struggling offence.

"The challenge is to win the game. They are a very organized, very physical team and they showed [against Guatemala] that they can score goals. It's going to be a tough measure to win, but at this stage we don't expect any easy games."

Offensive slump

At the same time, Dasovic knows that the U.S. is capable of breaking out of its offensive funk.

"Their team can score goals, but we have an idea of how we're going to play them," Dasovic told CBCSports.ca.

"Do they have firepower? Absolutely! We definitely expect that they can break out of it anytime. They've scored on us in the past and we know they can do it."

The winner of the match will take on the winner of the other semifinal between Central American rivals Guatemala and Honduras for the CONCACAF U-23 Championship, an afterthought considering what's at stake for the semifinal winners.

Both semifinals winners earn berths in the Olympics, while the losers will play in the meaningless third-place match.

This latest instalment of the Canada-U.S. rivalry should generate much interest, especially from Toronto soccer fans.

The U.S. squad includes Toronto FC midfielder Maurice Edu and defender Marvell Wynne.

Edu, the U.S. captain, was a strong presence in Toronto FC's midfield in 2007 on his way to capturing the MLS rookie of the year award. He also recently earned his first cap for the U.S. senior national team and is emerging as a rising star in American soccer.

First international cap

Wynne was a pleasant surprise on defence after coming over in a trade with the New York Red Bulls, and also recently earned his first international cap.

Adu and Altidore, who spearhead the U.S. offence, represented the U.S. in last year's FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada.

Thursday's game will provide Canadian soccer fans with a chance to get revenge for the Canadian men's team's controversial 2-1 loss to the U.S. in the semifinals of last year's CONCACAF Gold Cup in Chicago. In that game, Canadian midfielder Atiba Hutchinson's game tying goal was disallowed on an offside call, though replays clearly showed he was onside.

Though Dasovic could use the Gold Cup loss to motivate his squad, he denies that the loss will provide any added incentive.

"That [Gold Cup] loss is in the past and a lot of the guys on this team weren't a part of that," Dasovic said. "Andre [Hainault] was on that team, but he's too mature to let that get in the way. I've told the guys what's at stake and they're preparing for this game. We're not worrying about what's happened in the past."

now