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Canada faces huge task with Olympic soccer spot on the line

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Associated Press
3/30/2012 3:04:25 PM
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It's been 28 years since Canada last qualified in men's soccer at the Olympics and all it will take to snap that streak is a monumental effort against one of the sport's giants.

Still, under-23 coach Tony Fonseca likes his team's chances.

Canada takes on heavily-favoured Mexico in semifinal play Saturday at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in Kansas City, Kansas, with a berth in London on the line.

A win against Mexico would propel the Canadian men's team to the Olympics for the first time since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

But it won't be easy against a fierce Mexican opponent that finished atop its group with a three wins and a plus-10 goal difference.

"We are very aware the huge mountain ahead of us but as far as I'm concerned, it's a 50-50 chance. It's like playing the lottery, you're in it to win it," Fonseca said on a conference call Friday. "We know how important this is for the program, the players, for the country -- we know our responsibilities and we're going to try our best."

Open to players born in 1989 or later, many didn't expect the Canadian to advance past the tournament's group stage. But a 0-0 tie against El Salvador, a shock 2-0 win over the U.S. and a 1-1 draw with Cuba meant Canada finished second in its group and booked a place in the semifinals.

Fonseca says he's been happy with how his young squad, which includes two 17 year olds, has responded to the adversity that's been thrown its way.

He expects nothing different against Mexico.

"Ultimately it's up to the players to play the game and to show the desire and the passion and the fighting spirit this team has shown -- something that has been away for a while in some Canadian football and that's what we are trying to bring back," he said. "That spirit that you're not going to bend -- you might break -- but you're not going to bend.

"The most positive aspect of this group has been the will to fight, the will to play for their country and represent it well."

El Salvador takes on Honduras in the other semi after winning Canada's group with a stunning 3-3 tie against the U.S. that sent the Americans packing.

The Canadians were disappointed with the late Cuban goal in Monday's 1-1 tie that ultimately cost them top spot in the group, and a much easier semifinal opponent in Honduras.

However, Fonseca says the players have recovered and are well rested after playing three games in five days.

"Everybody thinks Cuba was an easy team to beat. I don't think that way. I think we managed the game for large periods of time very well," he said. "Just a lack of concentration in the dying minutes of the game that led to a tie but I thought we actually played well."

For Canada to have any chance against Mexico, its defence will have to control strikers Alan Pulido and Marco Fabian, who have combined for seven goals in three games.

Fonseca was coy with the media on how he plans to line up against the Mexicans, but added his players are aware of the threat.

Although Mexico is heavily favoured to advance, Canada has had some success against Saturday's opponent in recent international tournaments.

Captain Nana Attakora was part of the team that beat Mexico 2-0 at the 2009 CONCACAF under-20 championship, while Canada also tied the Mexicans 1-1 in the 2008 Olympic qualifying tournament.

Despite those results, Fonseca only wants his players looking forward.

"We don't focus too much on the past. The past belongs to the museums. It's about the present," he said. "It's about what we should be doing and what we can do in order to win the game."

Notes: Canada won gold in men's soccer at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. ... The Canadian women's team has already qualified for the London Games. ... Toronto FC defender Ashton Morgan has been in contact with teammates Doneil Henry and Matt Stinson, who are part of the Canadian squad. Canada wanted to include Morgan on its roster but couldn't secure his release from Toronto. "I talk to them every day," Morgan said after Toronto FC practice on Friday. "They're excited. They can't wait to get started. Once again, they're going to leave it on the field. It's one last game to qualify for the Olympics."

Nana Attakora-Gyan (Photo: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
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