Canada’s run in the 2022 CONCACAF U-20 Championship came to an end Sunday with a penalty kick loss to Guatemala in the round of 16. With the 1(4) - 1 (3) loss, Canada’s hopes of reaching the 2023 U-23 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics, were also extinguished.
For the first time this tournament coach Mauro Biello trotted out what could be considered his best starting 11. Biello made a further tweak by lining up in a 3-4-1-2 with Mat Catavalo slotted in as the 10 behind dual strikers Lowell Wright and Tiago Coimbra.
While these moves suggested Canada’s intentions were to take the game to Guatemala, the game’s progress did not reflect these intentions. The game quickly devolved into a chippy affair marked by many fouls by both teams of both the called and uncalled variety.
The first good scoring opportunity for Canada came when a penalty for handball was called in the box. However, the opportunity was squandered when Lowell Wright stepped up to claim the kick but slipped on the wet grass as he struck the ball. The ball, devoid of any power, appeared to hang in the air and allowed Guatemalan keeper Jorge Moreno to make a spectacular save to deny Wright and Canada of taking the lead.
Late in the half, it was Guatemala’s chance to take the lead when they were awarded a penalty when Daniel Diaz was clipped from behind in the box by Keesan Ferdinand. Ferdinand could consider himself lucky he was not sent off on the play as he was already carrying a yellow card. However, now it was Ben Alexander’s turn for heroics and he guessed right and denied the Guatemalan penalty taker Arquimides Ordonez, and preserved the tie going into the break.
The first substitutions by Biello were to swap out Wright and Tiago Coimbra for Hugo Mbongue and Jean-Aniel Assi early on in the 2nd half. The move was a somewhat curious one as both attackers have generally been more of a threat to score than anyone else on the team all tournament. While neither Wright, aside from the missed penalty, and Coimbra had not been causing much concern for the Guatemalan defence, neither player had received much service in the game either.
The game continued in the second half in much the same dour manner that marked the first half. Canada’s defence did a great job at holding Arquimides Ordonez, Guatemala’s sniper with a goal in each of the three round robin games, off the mark. However, neither side created much in the way of good scoring chances, nor did either team give any ground to their opponents. After 90 minutes of regulation time the score remained scoreless and extra time beckoned.
Extra time continued in much the same manner as regulation time with neither side carving out any serious scoring chances. But then, late in the first period of extra time, Canada was literally handed a second gift when Guatemalan defender Jeshua Urizar blocked Mbongue’s close in header with his arm. After a considerable VAR delay, the penalty was eventually awarded. This time Kamron Habibullah stepped up for Canada and made no mistake from the spot when he slotted in a low drive under keeper Moreno’s arm.
Upon getting the lead Canada now appeared to be grinding the clock down ever so slowing to what seemed certain victory. However, sloppy coverage on a whipped in cross in the 119th minute allowed Anderson Villagrán to firmly head in the tying goal from close range. While the linesman raised the flag for off-sides, a second VAR check overturned the decision and the goal stood. Penalty kicks were waiting as neither side could find a winner in the remaining few minutes.
Penalty kicks ultimately favoured Guatemala as they prevailed 4-3. Both Kwasi Poku and Justin Smith, who’s Panenka hit the crossbar, missed, while Guatemala’s takers only missed once. Scoring for Canada were Gabriel Pellegrino, Keesan Ferdinand and Kamron Habibullah.
As Canada’s U-20s crashed out of the tournament, one wonders where things went wrong. The Canadian team never seemed to get going. Slow starts in all four games, marked by what appeared to be a lack of any semblance of a game plan, stuck out. Individually, Canada has many good young prospects to look forward to in the future. Names like Justin Smith, Lowell Wright, Tiago Coimbra, Ben Alexander and Jamie Knight-Lebel come to mind. However, Canada’s collective were not as good as their individual parts.
Many Canadian fans will be pointing fingers at the coaching decisions made throughout the tournament. Many criticisms, from line-ups, tactics and pre-game preparations, are valid. However, the team’s shortcomings began and ultimately ended with Canada Soccer’s lack of planning and spending on the youth program for too many years. With only one two week camp held only a few months ahead of the tournament, there was little chance of the team developing any chemistry, or working on any meaningful game tactics. In the end, the results reflected the effort put into the program.