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Olympic Qualification Could Put Canadian Soccer on the Map

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The Canadian men's U-23 kick off Olympic qualification on Thursday. With it comes an opportunity to take a significant step forward for the Canadian program.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

One game. That's how close the Canadian men's U-23 soccer team has come to qualifying for both the Bejing 2008 and London 2012 summer Olympics.

It's also how close they have come to national attention, which is painfully rare for the men's side of the Canadian soccer program.

Instead, when the Canadian U-23 team kicks off the 2015 Olympic Qualification tournament on Thursday they will do so in relative anonymity. But with the profile of soccer growing in Canada, the time couldn't be better for the Olympic team to make a name for themselves.

In the grand scheme of the soccer world, the Olympic tournament is fairly insignificant. That is why it is a U-23 event instead of forcing club teams to release their top players.

Canada, as will be pointed out every time the national team has a setback, isn't a soccer country yet. For the main part that holds the national team back, in this case it is a positive: the average Canadian likely won't understand that Olympic soccer isn't a big deal.

To them the Olympics will be near or on par with the World Cup, as is the case with what is still the true national sport, hockey. As a result, Canada has a chance to make more than a few headlines if they somehow pull off Olympic qualification.

The women's team are the perfect example of how this can be true. Nobody is saying that the Canadian team will be winning any medals at Rio 2016 if they even get there. But like the women's team, it will give them a rare opportunity to inspire the nation.

Knowing that a Canadian team can qualify for a major tournament would certainly be something for the CSA to point to in terms of securing a new television deal. It wouldn't hurt when it comes to funding for the mysterious Canadian League either.

It won't be easy, and the team's opening game against the United States on Thursday will determine whether or not it is even likely. Canada beat the U.S. 2-0 at the last qualifying tournament, but it will be a big ask for the team to do it again.

Beating the United States would go a long way towards ensuring the team avoids the top team in the region, Mexico, in the crucial semi-final round. That is likely the key to Canada's qualification.

In order to qualify for the Olympics, Canada needs to finish top two in a group that includes America, Panama and Cuba.

That would qualify them for the semi-finals, where a win would book their ticket to Rio. Should they lose, they'll play in a third-place game with the winner playing against Colombia to go to the Olympic games.

Canada has already played against Panama recently, as well as Peru and Brazil at the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games. Canada drew Panama 0-0, and ultimately exited a disappointing tournament with just one goal.

This team is better than that group, however, maybe not as much better as they could have been but certainly improved in every position.

Goalkeeper Quillan Roberts had a strong season with Toronto FC II in the USL, and is the favourite to start in goal for the Canadian team.

The backline will be solidified by the addition of Luca Gasparotto, who is playing professionally in Scotland for Greenock Morton FC and has been called up for Canada as recently as the last World Cup qualifier.

The most improved part of the team is the midfield. Samuel Piette, Jay Chapman, Michael Petrasso, Dylan Carreiro and Maura Eustaquio are all crucial additions.

The team will be hoping that these additions are enough to make sure that the Pan Am games don't repeat themselves. If they do it would another major bump in the road after a rocky summer for the program.

If they can manage to qualify, however, at this point in the country's soccer growth it could be almost as important as qualifying for a World Cup, which is a lot further away than a spot at the Olympic games.