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How Canada can win a rare Olympic men's soccer berth

CBC Sports' daily newsletter previews the CONCACAF Olympic men's soccer qualifier, where Canada can win one of the last two tickets to Tokyo.

Regional qualifying tournament kicks off this week in Mexico

Zachary Brault-Guillard, who plays for MLS' CS Montreal, is one of the young players hoping to push Canada to a rare Olympic men's soccer berth. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

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A big stretch for Canadian soccer kicks off this week

The men's national program is about to take part in two major regional qualifiers. The Olympic qualifying tournament for North and Central America and the Carribean opens Thursday in Mexico, and the area's qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup start next Wednesday in various locations.

We'll get into the latter in more detail next week, but for now here's what to know about the Olympic qualifier:

It's been a while since Canada had a men's soccer team in the Olympics. We never have to worry about the women's squad, which will be making its fourth consecutive appearance this summer in Tokyo and trying for its third straight podium finish. But a Canadian men's team hasn't qualified since 1984 and hasn't captured a medal since 1904, when a club team from what is now Cambridge, Ont., won gold in a three-team event. Canada's only other appearance in the Olympic men's tournament came in 1976 in Montreal.

The tournament will decide the final two entries for Tokyo. Fourteen of the 16 spots in the Olympic men's event are already filled. All that's left are the two allocated to CONCACAF — the governing body for North and Central America and the Carribean. Eight teams will battle for them starting Thursday in Guadalajara and Zapopan, Mexico. They're divided into two groups, and the top two from each advance to the cross-over semifinals (the top seed in each group plays the No. 2 team in the other). The winners of those semifinal matches, which are on March 28, get to go to the Olympics. A final will be played March 30, but it doesn't really matter.

Canada is in the softer group — but that doesn't make it easier to reach the Olympics. Since 1992, when the Olympics started restricting the men's tournament to players under 23 years old, 13 of the 14 CONCACAF berths have gone to Mexico, the United States and Honduras. Only the latter is in Canada's group, which is helpful for Canada's chances of finishing in the top two and advancing to the semifinals. But it also means that, if Canada is able to reach the semis, it will probably have to beat either Mexico or the U.S. in a do-or-die match for a spot in the Olympics. The other two teams in Canada's group are El Salvador and Haiti, who have a combined one Olympic appearance between them. Canada's first match is Friday vs. El Salvador, followed by Monday vs. Haiti, then the group-stage finale Thursday, March 25 vs. Honduras.

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Canada's two best players won't be there. The Olympic age limit could have worked in Canada's favour because European club-team standouts Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich) and Jonathan David (Lille) are 20 and 21, respectively. But the qualifying tournament overlaps with the first round of World Cup qualifying, and the Canadian program would rather deploy Davies and David there.

A coronavirus outbreak cost Canada some more potential players. The nine Toronto FC players listed on Canada's provisional 50-man roster were ruled out of the Olympic qualifier after positive tests at the Major League Soccer team's training camp. But the final 20-man roster, announced last week, still has nine MLS players — five from the Vancouver Whitecaps, four from CF Montreal — and a few that belong to European club teams. Read more about who's playing for Canada here.

Canada's Charles-Andreas Brym currently plays for a Belgian club. (Liza Rosales/Canada Soccer)

Quickly...

Another Canadian won a world-championship medal in freestyle skiing. Edouard Therriault took silver in today's men's big air event in Aspen. He joins Mikael Kingsbury (gold in moguls and dual moguls), Simon d'Artois and Rachael Karker (halfpipe silver for both) and Megan Oldham (slopestyle bronze) among the medallists at this year's worlds, which were held in multiple locations and concluded today. The final snowboarding world-championship events are also today in Aspen. If you're reading this in time, you can catch the men's and women's big air live until 5 p.m. ET here. Canadians Laurie Blouin, Mark McMorris and Max Parrot qualified for the finals and can join Seb Toutant (slopestyle) and Eliot Grondin (snowboard cross) as Canada's 2021 snowboard world-championship medallists.

The empire struck back. After missing the playoffs for the first time in 12 years and posting a losing record for the first time in 20, the New England Patriots seem very determined to return to power in their second season A.T. (After Tom). Since the NFL's free-agent negotiating window opened yesterday at noon, the Pats have already reportedly agreed to deals with two playmaking tight ends (Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry), a good wide receiver (Nelson Agholor), one of the best pass rushers on the market (Matt Judon) and a solid defensive back (Jalen Mills). Getting defensive standouts Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung back from their COVID-19 opt-outs should also help, and Bill Belichick is still one of the best head coaches of all time. As long as shaky quarterback Cam Newton can be less of a disaster than he was last year — or the Pats land someone better — New England should be right back in playoff contention.

The best team in the NHL is… the Florida Panthers?! OK, "best" is in the eye of the beholder, but Florida is now No.1 in the overall standings after beating Chicago last night to leapfrog the idle Islanders and Hurricanes. Those teams have won nine and eight in a row, respectively, but the Panthers are on a hot streak of their own, winning four in a row and six of their last seven. This kind of success is not normal for Florida, which hasn't won a playoff series since its rat-infested run to the Stanley Cup final in 1996. But this shortened season feels pretty wide-open at the moment. Six teams (the others are  defending champion Tampa Bay, Washington and Toronto) are within two points of first place overall.

Only five people have scored more NHL regular-season goals than Alex Ovechkin. He potted his 717th last night in Buffalo, matching Phil Esposito for sixth on the all-time list. The only guys ahead of Ovechkin now are Wayne Gretzky (894), Gordie Howe (801), Jaromir Jagr (766), Brett Hull (741) and Marcel Dionne (731). If Ovechkin plays in all 28 of Washington's remaining games this season and maintains his 2021 pace of 0.46 goals per game, he'll finish the campaign a goal or two short of Dionne. But, assuming the NHL returns to a full 82-game schedule next fall, Ovechkin will have a good shot to finish that season ahead of everyone but Gretzky and Howe.

And finally…

It's getting really bleak in Buffalo. Last night's 6-0 defeat to Ovechkin's Capitals was the Sabres' 11th loss in a row. During this stretch they've been shut out four times and outscored by a combined 47-17. Buffalo is now 2-13-2 since returning from its two-week outbreak timeout a month ago, dropping its record this season to 6-17-4 — worst in the league by four points. Also, franchise player Jack Eichel is out indefinitely with an upper-body issue. And, to (literally) add insult to injury, look at the Buffalo News' latest NHL power rankings:

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