With Group A’s first two games at the Concacaf Men's Olympic Qualifying tournament in the books, Group B action now gets underway Friday in Mexico.
That shifts the MLS lens to Canada’s opener against El Salvador (6 pm ET), with former CF Montréal head coach Mauro Biello leading a team that includes 11 players from various MLS clubs. Canada’s men's U-23s have never advanced to the Summer Olympics, though their “A team” reached the 1984 edition and they’ve made each of the last three Concacaf semifinals.
“It is important that we grow throughout the competition and we have already started that with our pre-tournament camp in Guadalajara,” Biello said ahead of their opening game. “From now, it’s all about gaining momentum through the group stage and being sharp all the way through the competition.”
Aside from facing El Salvador, Canada awaits other Group B games against Haiti (March 22) and Honduras (March 25). The top two teams will advance to the semifinal round, with the finalists then reaching this summer’s international competition in Tokyo.
Canada could benefit from avoiding a group-stage draw with either hosts Mexico or the United States, though Concacaf matches present myriad challenges regardless of the opponent.
“We are in a competitive group ahead of a difficult knockout stage, but we have a chance to do something special with this group of young players,” Biello said.
From an MLS perspective, key players for Canada could include CF Montréal right back Zachary Brault-Guillard, Vancouver Whitecaps FC midfielder Michael Baldisimo and New England Revolution winger Tajon Buchanan. Those like center back Derek Cornelius (Vancouver) and attacking midfielder Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla (CF Montréal) are also poised for key roles.
Like other teams, they recognize the importance of starting with three points and creating a smoother path to the knockout round. Some history is on the line, after all.
“The first game sets the tone for us, for sure,” Biello said. “We’re looking to win this game, we’re looking to win every game, as best we can. We know that it'll be a tough competition today in El Salvador, a team that’s been together three times previous to this tournament, so we’re looking at a team that may have rhythm and we're going to need to break up that rhythm and make sure we install our identity and impose ourselves in this game.”