KANSAS CITY, Kan. – The Canadian Under-23 team are putting on a confident face as they head into their winner-take-all semifinal matchup against Mexico on Saturday at the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament (9 pm ET, Sportsnet, CONCACAF.com).
Victory means advancement to the London Olympics. A loss means they'll watch from home like most of the rest of the world.
And standing in their way is a Mexican side that’s scored 11 times in three games and has conceded just once. But being the underdog is nothing new for Canada – they were also the underdogs earlier in the competition when they pulled off a shock 2-0 win over the United States in Nashville.
“For sure this is a good side,” midfielder Samuel Piette told the media after Canada’s final training session ahead of Saturday’s game. “They have good players. We saw in the group stage that they finished first with all victories. I think we did pretty good also and we can compete with this team. It’s only an hour-and-a-half of football, so anything can happen.”
Though they put on a relaxed and brave front, the Canucks are heading into a game that many of the players are saying is the biggest they’ll be playing in their young careers.
With that kind of big-stage environment and a packed house expected at Livestrong Sporting Park, the nerves start to creep in. It’s expected that the Canadian contingent will be dwarfed by a predominantly pro-Mexican crowd.
“Anxiety could be a problem, but a lot of them have experience already in different areas,” said head coach Tony Fonseca. “I think you know for once, this stadium is going to be packed and that’s something they don’t face too often but I think it will be good for them. It will be a unique experience.”
They’ll have to keep that mindset against an attack that features players like Alan Pulido and Marco Fabián, who have four and three goals respectively. The Mexicans were rampant in the Group stage, tearing through Trinidad and Tobago and Honduras before squeezing out a 1-0 win over Panama with a largely reserve squad.
In training the Canadians have kept it relaxed the whole way through the tournament. That was no different Friday evening as they took to the pitch for training, where smiles were etched on the faces of both players and staff.
“No one takes anything too seriously,” captain Nana Attakora told the small gathering of Canadian media. Attakora said that he’s enjoyed this current group of Canadian players more than any other Canadian youth team he’s been a part of.
“Against Cuba our result wasn’t the best – it was a bad game,” Attakora explained. “But you know what, we picked ourselves up the next day and we’re laughing and everything. It’s a good group.”