Mexsport / Canada Soccer Flickr
It's not quite 8-1 and it definitely wasn't Honduras, but it's pretty close. Either way, The Canadian U-20s secured their quarterfinal date with the USA with a 5-1 win on Friday night over Nicaragua.
||5 – 1
Clarke 24', 53'
Eustaquio (PK) 38'
|GOALS||E. Pavon (PK) 45'|
|RED CARDS||C Gutierrez 37'|
5-1 is definitely not 8-1, and the U-20 side is definitely not the senior squad, and Nicaragua isn't Honduras. But when it counted, the U-20 side, led by two goals by Caleb Clarke, ran riot over the hapless Nicaraguans on their way to a win on a warm Puebla night. The win sets up a tantalizing quarterfinal clash with the Americans on Tuesday; a side that the Canadians beat last year during Olympic qualifying. The result looks excellent on paper, and despite a few hiccups was just as spectacular to see.
Before the game, Keven Aleman was relegated to the bench for an undisclosed reason. But while rumours filled the air as to why, Samuel Piette was getting busy scoring the in the sixth minute; Jon Dollery tipping a free to Piette who took the invitation to send a screamer into the top left hand corner of the net. It was a far cry from the desperate gasps of those same Canadians who had days before struggled to muster anything against the Cubans, and Piette's goalzo was only the tip of the iceberg.
A 10-minute period of Nicaraguan pressure yielded nothing, Maxime Crepeau barely tested. The defense led by captain Doneil Henry had a few shaky moments where Crepeau's net was somewhat under threat during that time, the goalkeeper himself also guilty of a number of shaky judgments, not swallowing the ball or coming out too far to play it. While it didn't cost the Canadians, it could prove deadly against a more powerful foe.
But try as the Nicaraguans might, Canada would get the second and third goals: Clarke tipped Ben Fisk's well taken corner into the bottom left side of the net in the 24th minute to make it 2-0, and Mauro Eustaquio would calmly convert a penalty in the 38th after Nicaragua's Cristian Gutierrez had a handball called against him in the box to make it 3-0. Gutierrez would also garner a second yellow for dissent after protesting the handball call, which meant the Central Americans would play a man down for the rest of the match.
That didn't faze them, as they would win a penalty call of their own in stoppage time of the first half thanks to a very marginal call, Piette marking his man and taking him down. Just second earlier, the ref had missed a clear red card when Alessandro Riggi was struck in the face. But being CONCACAF, it is what it is and Eulises Pavon would put the Nicaraguans within two at the stroke of half.
But whatever hope that they had to tie or win the game at half, Clarke would ruthlessly crush them with his second goal in the 53rd minute, sending a cross from Dollery into the net to make it 4-1. Ben McKendry would garnish the win with a fifth goal in the 64th, and while there were some efforts in the last 25 minutes to make it six the result by that time was painfully clear, the final whistle likely sweet music to the eliminated Nicaraguans.
The excellent result tonight will likely ensure that Clarke will start against the USA, while Aleman will be kept on reserve unless something goes pear-shaped. The only concern for Canada now, is if they have enough in the tank to beat the Americans, and punch their ticket to Turkey. The wind is at their back, though, as the Canadians beat the USA 2-0 in Nashville about a year ago. The stakes are higher this time, and both teams will want that place in at the U-20 World Cup later this year -- the Canadians, for one, will want to make a major tournament, after crashing out to eventual gold medalists Mexico to miss the London Olympics.
But tonight's effort was excellent on all sides, despite some early defensive lapses that allowed the Nicaraguans some periods of sustained pressure. Starting Clarke was a stroke of genius, and with the supporting cast in Dollery, Piette, Crepeau, Fisk and others, the Canadians looked like a real team for the first time in this tournament, bossing most of the game. It's definitely a massive turnaround compared to the grind that was the 2-1 loss to Cuba on Monday.
Yes, there is definitely more work to be done to ensure that the Canadians defeat the USA, a team that hasn't exactly lit the tournament on fire so far, is exponentially more talented than the Nicaraguan side. Still, after a horrendous misstep against Cuba, Clarke has excited a team in a way that Aleman did not, and likely will not. And at least there's something we can at least be happy about.