Canada now knows what it will take to get its men’s soccer team to the Tokyo Olympics — a win over top-ranked Mexico.
Coach Mauro Biello admits the matchup is a tough one but he isn’t counting out his gritty group of young Canadians.
“For sure this will be a big challenge for us, but the way this team has been fighting, the way this team has been playing defensively, I think we can build on stuff like that,” he said Thursday after Canada battled Honduras to a 1-1 draw to finish group play at the CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship.
The result gave Canada (1-0-2) a second-place finish in Group B and a spot in Sunday’s semifinals against Mexico (3-0-0).
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“Any time you play against Mexico, we’re going to be a better team after that,” Biello said.
Honduras (1-0-2) finished the round-robin stage of the tournament atop Group B on goal differential and will face the United States (2-1-0) in the other semifinal.
The winner of each game will represent North and Central America and the Caribbean in Tokyo this summer.
Mexico has been dominant through the eight-team tournament, racking up the most wins (three), most goals (eight) and most passes (1,245).
Canada may have made its path easier with a win over Honduras on Thursday, but struggled to create chances through the second half.
Centre back Derek Cornelius put the Canadians on the board in the 28th minute, drilling a header over the gloves of Honduran goalkeeper Alex Barrios.
Just two minutes later, Honduran captain Denil Maldonado registered the equalizer.
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Canadian ‘keeper James Pantemis came off his line to challenge and Maldonado popped a header of his own into the goal.
It was the first goal Pantemis has conceded in the tournament. The CF Montreal netminder earned clean sheets in Canada’s scoreless draw with Haiti on Monday and in its 2-0 win over El Salvador on March 19.
The back-to-back strikes were deflating, said Canadian right back Marcus Godinho.
“As soon as you score, you’re really excited. And to concede so quick right after, it’s honestly like getting shot,” he said.
Honduras out chanced the Canadians Thursday with eight on-target shots and a great chance off the post.
Pantemis was forced to stretch out for a diving stop in the 45th minute when Jose Reyes unleashed a blast from the top of the penalty box.
Canada’s lone on-target shot was Cornelius’ goal.
Fatigue started to wear on the Canadians in the second half, Godinho said, making it tough to bury a second strike.
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“I think a lot of the legs started to go,” he said. “I think we did enough defensively to keep the score tied. We were compact and we battled through. We had the mentality. We just have to keep fighting.”
While Godinho’s season with FSV Zwickau in Germany is well underway, many of his teammates have only recently reported to training camp with their North American clubs.
The group was “running on fumes a bit” in the second half of Thursday’s game because several players haven’t played in six to eight months, Biello said.
“I think this has been a little bit the issue for us,” he said. “We just weren’t closing space down quick enough.”
Over the next few days, the focus will be on getting players back to top shape so they can give their all against Mexico, the coach said.
“It’s going to be a lot of video, tactical work in the next two days. For sure, the next two days is to get these guys back and recovered,” he said. “Because it’s going to be obviously a difficult match but I think it’s going to be a game that they’re up for. We know the type of opponent that we’re facing and the players will be ready for it.”
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