Boys and girls, the mission is simple: Qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by defeating a bunch of Concacaf's top dogs in the Concacaf region, using a squad of under-23 talents, supplemented with three older players. On Thursday, Canada learned its qualifying path to the Olympics this summer, being drawn into Group B alongside Honduras, El Salvador, and Haiti, with Group A consisting of the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. These eight teams will be competing in a group-to-knockout tournament, where the two finalists earn Olympic berths. It seems fairly straightforward, in theory – but the execution certainly won't be. This is Concacaf, one of the most evenly-matched and unpredictable confederations in world soccer, after all. It could be as mundane as the U.S. and Mexico winning their way to a second meeting in the final and booking the two Olympic berths at stake, no problems. Or (and hopefully so), the soccer gods can smile upon the underdogs and overachievers once again, seeing any combination of these nations compete and topple giants at the Concacaf qualifying tournament, which is set to take place in March and April in Mexico. So, how does Canada qualify for the Olympics in Tokyo? Here's a 5-step plan:
Step 1: Assemble a team that can compete

The first step is the easiest or the hardest, depending on how coach Mauro Biello want to go about things. You can try to assemble as strong a squad as possible and hope everyone answers the call, with U-23 talents such as Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Liam Millar all obvious selections. But, will their pro clubs allow them to leave and play in the qualifiers? On the flip side, you could build out a complete 23-man roster from just Canadian Premier League players and have a high likelihood of getting the call-ups accepted by CPL teams, though the trade-off is a lack of experience in totality. The most likely approach is that the Canadian roster will look similar to the recent wave of call-ups for the senior side's friendlies against Barbados and Iceland, if somewhat altered to account for the over-23 limit. A mix of new faces, established youngsters, and plenty of noted absences make for a somewhat disjointed, but certainly high-potential roster that can compete with the best of 'em on their day. It's the same reality for every team, of course. Mexico, the U.S., Costa Rica, Honduras et al will bring their own mixed-bag squads for this event. In truth, Canada's "new wave" of young talent, possibly sans Davies and David, will finally be put to the test in a meaningful way. In that regard, John Herdman and his staff have already provided a solid platform with this first round of call-ups.
Step 2: Win your winnable games

The roster has been selected, the players are ready to compete, and Tristan Borges, fresh off his hat trick against Iceland (probably) is raring to get his shot at Honduras in a crucial qualifying fixture ... but hold your horses. First, Canada has a date with El Salvador (March 21) and Haiti (March 24), and those two matches are just as vital, if not more so, to qualifying out of Group B. Winning these winnable games would do a lot for Canada, on all fronts; it guarantees a semifinal berth, for one, and likely makes the Honduras game the group-topping decider, with the added consequence of deciding which team between the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, or the Dominican Republic that Canada will play – more than likely, one of the first two. But, more than that, it would set the correct tone for Canada, who could use that momentum heading into a crucial March 27 tilt vs. Honduras and then into the final two matches of the tournament, giving a squad that may not be entirely familiar with one another the sort of chemistry and confidence needed to compete. So, keep it simple and to the point in these first two matches: wins, of any kind, preferably with little fuss, will do the trick.
Step 3: Defeat Honduras, top your group

If beating El Salvador and Haiti is Step 2, the next obvious step is defeating Honduras to set up the best possible match-up for the semifinals on March 30 ... kind of. After all, it's entirely possible that the second-place finisher of Group A ends up being a tougher team for Canada to defeat in the semis, such is the close-knit nature of this entire affair. But, beating Honduras means that, regardless of opponent, Canada will be taking on a team that didn't manage to top their group, and whatever flaws precluded their semifinal opponent's second-place finish could be exposed, as such. A win over Honduras means Canada also enters the semifinals as a top threat. Nothing wrong with a touch more confidence in the team, and a bit more fear in your opponents, right?
Step 4: Beat the U.S. or Mexico OR topple underdogs Costa Rica (OR the DR??)

Now comes the fun part. Should Canada successfully navigate the first three steps, it'll find itself in the semifinals against one of Mexico or the U.S. ... or Costa Rica ... or even the Dominican Republic, depending on the madness of Group A. It is, of course, the same reality that Canada faces should they finish second behind Honduras in Group B, but in any case, another tough test – perhaps their toughest of the tournament – now awaits them. This is a semifinal in name only; a win in this stage books you a spot at the Olympics, regardless of who wins the final. So, expect this match to be priority number one for Canada. How do you defeat the U.S. or Mexico, potentially in Mexico? That's a question for another day. But, if you can pull it off, your great reward awaits you.
Step 5: Book your tickets to Tokyo (and win the tournament)

Congratulations. You've made it to Step 5, and booked your ticket to Japan. Try the takoyaki. Stay for the ton katsu and the elaborate vending machines. It promises to be another great adventure for soccer in Canada. But, don't be fooled – there's one more step before jetting off to Tokyo and spending way too much money at the pachinko machines (or, in this writer's case, the Pokemon Centre). On April 1, the two remaining finalists will battle it out for the title and distinguished honour of being named the 2020 Concacaf Men's Olympic Qualifying Championship, err, champions? Eh, whatever, really. There's nothing on the line at this point. The two finalists have already booked their tickets to the Olympic games and there's nothing but pride to play for here. But, Canada winning an international tournament of any kind is always a reason to celebrate, so if the Canadian squad makes it all the way here, let's win this whole damn thing and show the region what our #PlayTheKids are all about. And then promptly forget about the whole affair and move onto more pressing matters. We're going to Tokyo! Just stick to the plan.

Continue reading...