Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Oly berth on line tonight in K.C.
In November 1904 a train departed what is now Cambridge, Ont., bound for St. Louis.
As described in reputed soccer researcher Colin Jose's Canadian Soccer History project, the train "was special -- red and white streamers throughout the car, red and white fan-shaped decorations under the windows, flags flying from the rear, and a huge sign letting everyone know that it was the Galt Football Club passing through."
Galt, winners of the Ontario Cup and three-time provincial champions, were on their way to participate in the soccer tournament of the 1904 Olympics, which were tied to that year's World's Fair. Their involvement in the competition required only two matches, and after dispatching a pair of local sides (St. Louis was, and remains, a hotbed of soccer in the United States) by a combined score of 11-0 Galt FC, representing Canada, were crowned Olympic champions.
(Interestingly, part of Galt's pre-Olympic preparations involved a 17-match tour of Manitoba, in which they faced teams representing the likes of Pilot Mound, Deloraine and Crystal City.)
Why the history lesson? To prove a point, mostly. Canada's relationship with soccer goes back a long way, and tonight in Kansas City another chapter in the complicated narrative of that story will be written.
What's at stake is a first trip to an Olympics since 1984 and just a third participation in the tournament since Galt rode the rails to St. Louis nearly 108 years ago.
It's a moment of tremendous opportunity for soccer in Canada, and despite a topsy-turvy group stage campaign that yielded both a memorable win over the United States and disappointing draw with Cuba, Tony Fonseca's side are exactly where they wanted to be before the first ball was kicked last week -- within a single victory of a berth in the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
That they're this close to writing their name in the April 24 group stage draw is largely down to Fonseca. Roundly criticized after his players appeared tired and confused against El Salvador in the Olympic Qualification Tournament opener, the manager made a handful of key adjustments that allowed his players to experience success against the Americans two days later.
Several of the changes involved personnel and introduced Canadian fans to the likes of right-back Andres Fresenga and Cavallini -- both of whom play their club soccer in Uruguay -- and 17-year-old midfielder Samuel Piette, who is on the books at French side Metz and has been an absolute revelation in the centre of the park for Canada.
But Fonseca's team also played with gusto against the United States. They pressed the opposition ball-carrier with enthusiasm; they created passing options and outlets when on the ball, themselves; they took advantage of set-piece situations; they defended commandingly, in concert.
It was a comprehensive performance -- one worth celebrating -- but any notion that this team had already sealed its progression to London went out the window when they dropped a dud against Cuba on Monday. Lessons learned, unlearned.
No doubt Fonseca and his coaching staff will have spent the last four days back at the drawing board, plotting a strategy and making adjustments -- just like they did a week ago. It's the manager's ability to draw up a plan, and the time he's had to do it, that will work to Canada's advantage when they come up against the pre-tournament favourites.
Mexico arrives in Kansas City having won all three of their matches at this competition so far and in Alan Pulido have the event's top scorer. Pulido, who plays for Mexican side Tigres, is one of nine players in manager Luis Fernando Tena's lineup who played for El Tri at last summer's Copa America -- South America's senior tournament. In a sentence, Mexico has a team of men in a competition of boys.
So how does Canada beat them?
Rediscovering the intensity they played with against the United States would be a good start. Mexico have several players who have the ability to strike from anywhere, and closing them down as a group will be key.
Pulido is the obvious dangerman, but Guadalajara's Marco Fabian is the playmaker and will require attention as well. Piette and Philippe Davies will have their work cut out from them in this regard, but if they can create enough turnovers Cavallini and Evan James might be able to make something happen on the counter-attack.
Of course, Canada aren't expected to win this match. No one has ever tipped them for a place in the Olympic Games, and given the opponent they're not about to start now.
But wouldn't it be something. Canada -- taking the field at Old Trafford or Wembley against the likes of Brazil, Spain or Great Britain. It seems dreamlike; but it wouldn't be out of place. Canada, in the tradition of Galt FC, have played on the big stages before. It's important to remember that.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 C8
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