Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No A game for Canada?

Lucky to escape with a draw, team has to find its mojo against U.S.

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Canada's 0-0 draw with El Salvador in the opening match of men's Olympic qualifying set off an all-too-familiar round of questioning.

Why were several of Canada's players played out of position?

Why couldn't they win the ball in midfield? Or string two or three passes together when they did? Why did the ball-carrier never have an option or an outlet? Why, as a group, did they look unfit? Why weren't tactical changes made in the second half when only the heroics of FC Edmonton goalkeeper Michal Misiewicz prevented an embarrassing defeat in Nashville?

Surely the Canadian coaching staff, headed by former Benfica defender Tony Fonseca, will have been going over the same sort of questions between Thursday and today, and hopefully their brain-storming sessions will have produced one or two answers. Because if not, God help us all.

Next up for Canada's Under-23 side in a tournament that will graduate two teams from the CONCACAF region (North and Central America and the Caribbean) to the 2012 Olympic Games is the United States, a powerhouse squad that trounced Cuba 6-0 in its competition opener.

The match kicked off immediately following the Canada-El Salvador draw, and once again -- questions.

Why did the Americans have a fluency in attack Canadian fans could only dream of? Why couldn't Canada have a player like Mikel Diskerud, who ran the show from the centre of the park, or Joe Corona, who attacked with creativity and imagination? Why did the American players crave possession whereas the Canadians were only ever too eager to give up the ball?

Needless to say, unless crucial adjustments are made by Fonseca and his staff ahead of tonight's match (6 p.m., Sportsnet One), Canada's U-23s are in store for an obliteration of epic proportions.

So what, possibly, can they do?

For starters, it's important to understand that Canada probably won't win the match anyway, and that its chances at progression to a semifinal now largely hinge on damage control -- recording a better goal difference against the Americans than El Salvador.

But even those trifling expectations will not be realized unless the team plays with something approaching intensity this evening in Nashville. The players need to show more "compete"; the coaching staff needs to give them a chance at success. That means playing players in their regular positions and making meaningful on-the-fly adjustments to contend with the opponent.

With a competitive loss to the United States, Canada will still remain in the mix for a semifinal berth and an outside shot at Olympic qualification. But a big defeat will be devastating, both to this group of players and the Canadian U-23 program as a whole.

A final question: why must Canada persistently fade from international tournaments with nary a whimper? The odd howl of desperation would at least comfort those who continue watching them, who keep on asking the same, painful questions.


Spot kicks

-- Real Madrid's lead atop La Liga, once as wide as 13 points, could be cut to three by Barcelona should the Catalans win at Mallorca today. The pressure is building on Madrid, and on Friday the Spanish Football Federation levied a two-match ban on defender Pepe for insulting referee José Luis Paradas Romero following Wednesday's controversial draw at Villarreal. The match also saw manager José Mourinho expelled to the stands and handed a one-match ban, although the suspension to Sergio Ramos was overturned upon appeal.

-- This weekend's Old Firm derby between Celtic and Rangers will be anything but normal. Celtic, the champions elect, are currently 21 points above archrivals Rangers, who were deducted 10 points for going into administration following financial collapse. A win for the guests at Ibrox would extend the gap to an incredible 24 points, although Rangers will surely be channelling every ounce of inspiration into defeating their existential enemies on Sunday.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 24, 2012 C8

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