It's fitting that the same weekend that the Final Four meets in college basketball, the game-before-the-tournament-final-that-really-matters took place in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament. In the semifinals this evening, Honduras beat El Salvador and Mexico beat Canada to each advance to the 2012 London Olympics.
Between the two advancing teams, only one MLS player was involved on the night, and that was D.C. United's Andy Najar, who got his revenge in a sense on the Americans who turned on him after he decided to play for the country of his birth. And while I wasn't sure how he would gel with his teammates in the tournament, as most of the Honduras squad is domestically-based, he provided the game-winning assist in extra time, as he fed a cross from the right in the box to Gerson Rodas, who finished with an emphatic header. Honduras won the thriller 3-2 on that goal in the 115th, just avoiding penalties to decide who would go to the Olympic tournament this summer. I would expect many of these players to go to London, as there aren't too many U23 players playing in Europe, and while they almost certainly will not be considered medal contenders, they could elevate their form over the next several months and surprise a few people in London. And considering this is their second straight Olympic tournament, they might be better than some will expect.
1st minute: Anthony Lozano (HON): Honduras 1-0 El Salvador
77th minute: Milton Molina (SLV): Honduras 1-1 El Salvador
101st minute: Gerson Rodas (HON): Honduras 2-1 El Salvador
106th minute: Edwin Sanchez (SLV): Honduras 2-2 El Salvador
115th minute: Gerson Rodas (HON): Honduras 3-2 El Salvador
In the second match of the doubleheader in Kansas City, Mexico beat Canada 3-1 to advance. Although Mexico controlled the second half, the first half was quite close, and Canada played Mexico evenly until El Tri got the first goal. For Mexico, this will be looked as a formality, as the expectations heading into the Olympics will surely be that they can contend for a medal, especially considering the success of the youth and senior sides in the past year. While some of the players in this tournament will go to London, there will be many European-based players who will most certainly be part of the squad in London. Among others, the Dos Santos brothers will probably feature, and Chicharito is rumored to be part of the squad as well as an overage player (Olympic squads can have three overage players). But Tigres forward Alan Pulido, who finished as the top scorer of the tournament, and Chivas de Guadalajara's Marco Fabian will almost certainly make the trip to England.
For Canada, making the semifinals was a surprise, and this success is certainly something to build on heading into the next phase of World Cup qualifying. Captain Nana Attakora had a solid tournament and while he's currently without a club, he will likely get some interest. The big star coming out of the tournament for the Canadians was goalkeeper Michal Misiewicz, who plays for FC Edmonton of the NASL, but who probably deserves a look in a bigger league. He had several key saves tonight, keeping the scoreline respectable for his team. In the end, the talent gap between Mexico and Canada was too large for the Canadians to overcome.
Here was the scoring summary for the match:
20th minute: Marco Fabian (MEX): Mexico 1-0 Canada
32nd minute: Marcus Haber (CAN): Mexico 1-1 Canada
33rd minute: Alan Pulido (MEX): Mexico 2-1 Canada
59th minute: Miguel Ponce (MEX): Mexico 3-1 Canada
Honduras and Mexico will meet Monday in the final of the tournament, but this is a match that won't have any real meaning except for bragging rights. Expect both sides to empty their benches and give guys who haven't played many minutes in order to preserve the health of those who might feature in the Olympics.