Canada Olympic Qualifying Mailbag: Dias, Baldisimo, excluding CPL attackers and more

Sometimes hindsight can be annoying. It can also be healthy to ensure previous mistakes aren’t repeated.

In the case of Canada, whose Olympic drought continues following a 2-0 loss to Mexico in the semifinals of the Concacaf Olympic qualifiers, it’s both.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone, and it is a convenient excuse when the desired result isn’t achieved. We still can’t lose sight of how it affected this squad, specifically the Toronto FC-eligible players.

There will be debate about the tactics, selection, certain games not falling Canada’s way, which players were there and who was absent. All of those discussions should be healthy.

Anyways, let’s not waste any more time. To your questions…

This, to me, is an arbitrary question.

Depending on who you asked, some fans, media and those within Canada Soccer will have been optimistic about their chances. Others, likely plagued by past heartbreaks, were probably adopting a glass-half-empty mentality.

Let’s look at some facts. There were six European-based players on Canada’s 20-man squad. The rest of the roster hadn’t played competitively since November, latest. A handful had either just begun or hadn’t even started pre-season training when they hopped on the plane.

To add to Mauro Biello’s woes, Toronto FC experienced a COVID-19 outbreak right before the squad was announced. Had he called them up, they would’ve had almost no time to train and would’ve been thrown into the deep end for the Haiti match, earliest.

The only opponent Canada faced that wasn’t in-season was Haiti, who called up nine European-based players. Honduras’ and El Salvador’s teams have played together for at least a couple of years in preparation for this tournament.

I think based on all these factors, I’d say it’s about what I expected: a semifinal appearance before losing to one of the big dogs of Concacaf.

That said, there were disappointments and encouraging takeaways. The 0-0 draw with Haiti, for example, is a game Canada could’ve won when you examine the expected goals from the match.

Sadly, Wyscout hasn’t released data from either of Canada’s final two matches at the time of writing. But if I were to guess, Honduras outchanced the Canadians and they kept Mexico to a respectable distance until the mishap in the 57th minute.

Either way you cut it, they were outshot in every game and struggled to create chances in open play (more on that later). However, in a four-team group stage, one win significantly boosts your odds of qualifying and Tajon Buchanan produced two outstanding individual efforts to get them over the line. Unfortunately for Canada, they didn’t have enough of those and they’re a necessity when deploying that type of system (duh).

Best-on-best, I think Canada at least tests Sebastián Jurado regularly, whether that’s on the counter or otherwise. In the context of this tournament, it probably closed ever so slightly.

Remember that several Canadian teams of the past have tried to deploy this defensive strategy. In 2015, Canada faced Mexico in the semis and lost 2-0. The difference? Erick Torres struck after just six minutes via a defensive breakdown. The 2021 team looked a bit shaky in the opening stages of the first half, so who knows

I guess we’ll find out how much we need to mind the gap as a whole if Canada faces Mexico in World Cup qualifying or at the Gold Cup this summer.

I’ll say this: Charles Andreas-Brym, the winger, is superior to Charles-Andreas Brym, the striker.

He still needs some improvement tactically and you have to remember that there were a total of six training sessions in the buildup to the tournament. Some of the European players arrived late, too.

The one improvement for the 2024 Olympic cycle is having a midfield, and therefore a team, that regularly produces chances in open play.

Based on the xG from Canada’s first two matches, they produced a combined 1.72 xG from 10 shots. Considering they scored twice across both games, with one goal off a set piece, that checks out. They struck early against El Salvador and just couldn’t convert against Haiti. The xG gods are fickle that way.

Those games weren’t the issue, even taking into account the mediocre 0.74 open-play xG versus El Salvador.

The issues arose when deploying medium-to-low blocks against Honduras and Mexico. Suddenly the creativity dried up. Yes, it’s partially expected when you’re absorbing pressure but only six shots? Three in each game from set pieces and open play combined? Woof.

Now, I called for Lucas Dias to start and he hasn’t created much in open play with Sporting’s U-23s this season. His 0.07 xG per 90 is below average. That’s because he tends to use his dribbling to produce shots, whether that’s via the counter-attack or by winning fouls in dangerous areas. I’m sure you all saw the threat he posed to Honduras and (less so after they got back in numbers to mark him) Mexico.

Obviously it’s easy to sit here and say Canada should’ve been more expansive. But I’m sure you all saw the lack of pace at the back. If this team went gung-ho and lost their shape, Mexico would’ve had a field day. Heck, Haiti found opportunities at times. That said, six shots in the final two games is a meagre output.

Clearly there is some discrepancy on Michael Baldisimo’s performances.

I understand it in a way. After all, there were situations when he was literally the only midfielder providing cover for the defence.

On the whole, I thought Baldisimo was solid in all facets despite the deficiency in match sharpness.

Defensively, he was fearless. Sometimes too fearless. When attempting a sliding tackle on the break when you’re somewhat exposed defensively, you have to be sure you’re going to at least halt the momentum.

There were still some absolutely brilliant defensive sequences from the Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder, though.

Oh, and don’t get me started on Baldisimo’s composure while pressed or ability to break the lines.

But that lack of match fitness and chemistry didn’t help Baldisimo with his distribution in key moments. That turnover vs. Mexico at the start of the section is one example.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying if this was mid-season and these games were played during the MLS season, he’d have been far more consistent. The same can be said about every other Americas-based player.

This is how you get my attention: speaking positively (or negatively) about one of my adopted children favourite players on this team.

Only Lucas Dias and those close to him will know his feelings about representing Canada. Biello said Portugal had invited Dias to a youth camp prior to the qualifiers, and having played for the U-16s in the past, they’re probably the favourite.

Of course, Dias accepting the call and participating in the tournament is positive as well.

Whether he enjoyed it is another question. Biello revealed that Dias missed a chunk of early training sessions due to isolation protocols and eventually gained enough playing time before the semifinals to start.

Interestingly, when I asked why it took until the 70th minute to introduce Dias to the 1-1 draw with Honduras, Biello stated defensive shuffling and organization as reasons why he didn’t come on earlier. It would’ve been an iron-clad explanation if he added the isolation protocols as well.

Obviously with World Cup qualifiers coming up in June, Canada has the ability to call up Dias and tie him to the national team before Portugal pounces. It’s a big decision for an 18-year-old without a first-team debut, though, so no one should begrudge him if he takes his time. When I was 18, my biggest dilemma was “do I spend my remaining five dollars on this Egg McMuffin combo for breakfast or a bag of chips for dinner?”

Some of that is down to what I discussed about the lack of chance creation from open play, specifically in the final two games.

When Canada had possession and sprayed the ball across the pitch, Tajon Buchanan was running at defenders in an inverted winger role, striking fear into them in the process. He had a total of eight touches in the box against El Salvador and Haiti. He logged no more than three for the remainder of the tournament.

Theo Bair had some bright moments as a centre forward who can hold up the ball and drag defenders out of position against Haiti. When Canada executed the BBB (Baldisimo-Bair-Buchanan) sequences, that’s when they were picking apart the low block. Unfortunately, poor touches, offsides or insufficient weight on the passes undid those efforts.

Buchanan and Bair eventually had little support on counter-attacks and were almost immediately surrounded by multiple defenders. If it wasn’t that, then it was a Canadian holding onto the ball too long that hurt the attack, like Zachary Brault-Guillard below.

In Brym’s case, I already stated he needs to improve his tactical IQ and decision-making because several attacks died at his feet. For now, he’s best suited as a winger who’ll utilize his quickness and dribbling to unsettle defenders. If he gains incisiveness around the box, watch out.

TLDR version: It was tactics mixed with a sprinkling of execution.

If Michael Baldisimo is playing regularly to begin the season, then he can be offered a Gold Cup call-up, especially if Liam Fraser isn’t playing regularly for Toronto FC.

Lucas Dias is the first name that comes to mind because as a No. 10, he fills a need for the senior side. I doubt he’d be willing to commit his international future this early, but it’s worth a shot.

Otherwise, Tajon Buchanan is the other possibility. There is healthy competition on the wings for Canada and given what Buchanan accomplished in 2020, he’d be a prime candidate for a call-up in June or July.

Tajon Buchanan’s statistical radar during the 2020 MLS season.

The issue with bringing more CPL players is fitness. On top of that, Tristan Borges and David Choinere (a decent shout) would’ve been in a logjam at winger. Whether it was Buchanan, Brym, Dias or Ballou Tabla, they all had the same issue: a lack of service. Personnel wouldn’t have made a difference for me.

Noah Verhoeven, while a technically gifted player with creative attributes, also would’ve battled match fitness from the start. Now, if you’re asking if I’d take him or Aidan Daniels, I refer you to the radars below.

The one exception I’d seriously consider is Easton Ongaro. He returned from his brief loan in Denmark and finished that stint on a high note. It also would’ve provided Biello with a like-for-like replacement for Theo Bair.

However, we can rattle off countless “what ifs” and debate them until we’re red in the face, including “what if Canada had converted their chances against Haiti and faced the U.S. in the semifinals instead?”

At this stage in his career, Liam Millar should be playing as much first-team football as he possibly can. Now that he’s a regular at Charlton, he deserves a call-up to the senior side.

In terms of his impact with the U-23s, that’s a different story. I think any sane Canadian fan would gladly welcome an in-form Millar to the squad.

What’s intriguing is how he’d slot into the team. Millar is right-footed but operates on the left as you said. Buchanan is also right-footed, albeit he largely occupied the right flank with the New England Revolution. You can slot them both into their club roles and have them swap flanks throughout a game. It would’ve been excellent.

In the end, though, I think Millar being with the senior team is better for his long-term development. That cameo off the bench vs. Bermuda was encouraging for him.

Published by Peter Galindo

Peter has been a writer and editor with Sportsnet since 2014 where he covers everything football. He's also a part-time scout for a European agency. You can follow him on Twitter @GalindoPW where he tweets all things football.

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