Olympic Semifinal Preview: Mexico on Verge of Soccer Grand Slam

Mexico is on the verge of pulling off a rare grand slam.

In less than a year El Tri can pull off four rather amazing achievements. They started by winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup. They continued their roll with earning the FIFA Under-17 World Cup crown. They finished third at the FIFA U-20 World Cup.

On Saturday, they can add a fourth accomplishment by qualifying for the London Olympics. They need to defeat Canada at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas in the second game of a doubleheader at 9 p.m. ET. Honduras meets El Salvador in the first game at 6 p.m. ET (the championship game is Monday, but that is only for bragging rights).

Mexico is the only unbeaten and untied team among the final four sides in this Under-23 competition with a 3-0-0 record on the strength of a 7-1 thumping of Trinidad & Tobago, a 3-0 triumph over Honduras and a 1-0 win over Panama.

El Tri has looked sharp and has been easily the best team of the competition as it is the favorite to book a ticket to London this July and August.

Anything less will be considered a disaster, given the Mexicans' success and great expectations over the past 12 months.

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And their opponents know how difficult the challenge will be.

"We know exactly what we're going to face," Canada coach Tony Fonseca said. "It's a powerhouse. It's a team with a lot of quality, a lot of good things going for them."

The Mexicans will be spared a confrontation with their archrival United States, which exited the tournament earlier than many observers expected with one of the country's great meltdowns in international soccer. Faced with a must-win situation against El Salvador, the Americans allowed a goal four minutes into stoppage time -- Jaime Alas' 25-yard shot -- that skipped past goalkeeper Sean Johnson for an incredible 3-3 draw.

It was a not-so-gentle reminder that the favorites don't always prevail and Mexico coach Luis Fernando Tena.

"We can't be confident," he said. "We have to be alert. Canada beat the U.S. for a reason."

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The Canadians (1-0-2, five) set the stage for the U.S.'s ultimate collapse with a stunning 2-0 victory last Saturday. They will attempt to make it consecutive Saturday night specials.

"I saw some of their game against the United States," Mexican midfielder David Cabrera told "Other than that, I don't know a lot about them. We know that no rival is a bad rival. Canada will play to beat us and try to take away that ticket to London."

The Canadians don't expect to roll over and play dead.

"If everybody on the team works hard for each other for 90 minutes I think we can accomplish anything," forward Evan James said. "I think it's going to come down to us outworking the other team and believing in ourselves."

The opening confrontation has the potential to be a doozy as it pits one of the classic Central American rivalries in Honduras vs. El Salvador.

The rivalry is best known for the Soccer War, which erupted over four days after a World Cup qualifying series in 1969. Tensions have calmed since then, but these two neighboring countries still have a burning passion to beat one another.

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On paper, the Hondurans (2-1-0, six) should prevail, having recorded a 2-0 victory over El Salvador (1-0-2, five) in a Olympic qualifying warm-up match, but as Tena said about Canada, don't take anything for granted.

"There is no advantage because of it," Honduras coach Luis Fernando Suarez said. "They know us as well as we know them. It's about looking at a lot of things that make El Salvador a good team and how we can beat them. The way El Salvador was able to qualify with some tranquility speaks for that. It will be a complicated game for us. But I think we'll do just fine. I do anticipate a good game. I know I'd enjoy it if I was a regular fan."

If anything ran true to form it was during the group stage with Cuba losing a player and we don't mean to injury. Defender Yosmel de Armas did not return to Havana with the team. He is suspected to have defected, but he has not surfaced yet.

Canadian sportswriter Gavin Day, he counted 19 players in the Cuban player travel attire at Nashville airport on Tuesday morning. He said he counted twice.

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After Cuba came back to tie Canada in stoppage time in its final Group A match, 1-1, on Monday, Cuba coach Raul Triana González said de Armas wasn’t with the team at LP Field.

“He’s feeling very sick yesterday in practice,” Gonzalez said. “He injured his ankle. He was in the hotel. Something else happened. I don’t know about that.”

The next opportunity for a Cuban soccer player to defect? Most likely in Toronto, Canada, when the Canadians host Cuba on Oct. 12.

But that's light years away when it comes to international soccer. Let's worry about first things first -- the two games that will decide CONCACAF's representatives in the Summer Olympics on Saturday.

Given all the Mexican national teams' track record and success, added to great anticipation, anything less than a win and berth in London will be considered a disaster.

Michael Lewis, who has covered international soccer for more than three decades, can be reached at

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