GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Tajon Buchanan scored twice as Canada opened play at the CONCACAF Men's Olympic Qualifying Championship in impressive fashion Friday with a 2-0 win over El Salvador.
While there were a few shaky moments at the back, the Canadian under-24 side looked good against a physical El Salvador side. Canada moved the ball quickly and showed teeth in attack.
The eight-country tournament will decide which two teams represent the region, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean, at the Tokyo Olympics. The qualifier was originally scheduled for last March but was postponed due to the pandemic.
The Canadian men last made it to the Olympics in 1984 in Los Angeles where they lost to Brazil in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals.
Buchanan, who is entering his third season with the New England Revolution, made his presence felt early. A live wire blessed with pace and a deep bag of tricks, he turned heads in MLS last year when he led all Canadians with 23 regular-season appearances.
The 22-year-old winger from Brampton, Ont., opened the scoring in the 17th minute, capping a rapid-fire attack that saw Ballou Tabla find Buchanan in space near the edge of the El Salvador penalty box. The speedy Buchanan beat defender Kevin Menjivar and slotted his left-footed shot from a tight angle through goalkeeper Mario Gonzalez's legs.
Buchanan scored again four minutes later, this time with a rocket of a shot through traffic. A Canadian free kick landed at the feet of Derek Cornelius in the El Salvador penalty box and the Canada captain calmly laid the ball back to Buchanan, who hammered it home with his right foot from just outside the box.
Buchanan, named Canada Soccer's Youth International Player of the Year in 2020, celebrated with an equally impressive backflip. A kneeling Cornelius then mimed giving him a shoeshine.
Buchanan played provider in the 51st minute, beating a defender down the flank and the bending a perfect ball to Tabla in front of goal. But Gonzalez got his body in front of the shot.
Honduras blanked Haiti in the earlier game at the 55,000-capacity Jalisco Stadium, which was empty due to the pandemic.
Haiti started with 10 men and an outfield player in goal because part of its delegation arrived in Guadalajara late, impacting the timing of COVID-19 testing. The team got reinforcements during the match, including a goalkeeper, after tests came back negative.
Adding to Haiti's woes, defender Djimy Alexis was sent off in stoppage time for a second yellow card.
Canada continues Group B play against Haiti on Monday and Honduras next Wednesday. Group A opened play Thursday with the U.S. defeating Costa Rica 1-0 and Mexico beating the Dominican Republic 4-1.
The top two in each group advance to the semifinals with the winners booking their tickets to Tokyo.
Coach Mauro Biello's starting 11 included five players who had seen action with the senior side: goalkeeper James Pantemis, defenders Zachary Brault-Guillard, Marcus Godinho and Cornelius and forwards Charles-Andreas Brym and Tabla.
The 23-year-old Cornelius has the most senior caps at 13. Pantemis and Buchanan are uncapped but have both spent time with the senior team.
Canada's starting 11 featured eight MLS players — three each from Montreal and Vancouver and one apiece from Minnesota and New England. Of the other three, one was from the USL and two from Europe.
It was 30 degrees Celsius at kickoff.
Tabla was booked five minutes into the game for a clumsy sliding tackle. Soon after, El Salvador forward Marvin Marquez ran over Aidan Daniels but escaped with a lecture from Mexican referee Fernando Guerrero.
After going down 2-0, El Salvador pressed in the final third of the first half and Pantemis was called into action with a pair of fine saves. At the other end, Daniels' shot hit the El Salvador goalpost.
El Salvador had a couple of free kicks from a dangerous position late in the half but was off target on both. The Central Americans launched shots from distance in the second half, with Pantemis up to the task when needed.
There were six yellow cards in the game, three apiece.
Only players born in 1997 or later are eligible for Olympic qualifying (the same age limit was kept despite the qualifying tournament's one-year delay). Countries that make it to the Olympics are allowed up to three overage players.
Canada made two late changes to its roster Friday morning.
Citing medical reasons, Canada replaced defender Thomas Meilleur-Giguere (Pacific FC, CPL) and forward Kris Twardek (Jagiellonia, Poland) with Cavalry FC defender/winger Mo Farsi and York United FC defender Diyaeddine Abzi.
While Canada Soccer did not specify the medical issues, Meilleur-Giguere said he had torn his medial collateral ligament the day before the match.
"Life is so unfair sometimes, worked so hard for that moment and boom," he wrote in a social media post.
Farsi, named Best Canadian U-21 Player of the Year in the CPL in 2020, came off the bench in the 85th minute.
Mexico, which has won the last two CONCACAF qualifiers, and Honduras represented the region at the last two Olympics. Honduras was fourth at the 2016 Rio Games while Mexico defeated Brazil 2-1 to win gold in 2012 in London.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2021
The Canadian Press