By Michael Lewis
Mexico has won three straight, allowed only one goal and met expectations as CONCACAF Olympic qualifying favorite. With its critical semifinal against Canada next, El Tri is wary of not slipping now.
"We can't be confident," he said. "We have to be alert. Canada beat the U.S. for a reason."
Saturday's semifinals at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park are critical for not only Mexico and Canada, but El Salvador and Honduras, which meet in the first match of the doubleheader.
Only the winners qualify for the Summer Games in London, with the losers returning to wait for another four years.
El Tri won Group B with relative ease, outscoring Trinidad & Tobago, Honduras and Panama 11-1, and many expect it to claim a 10th trip to the Olympics.
Canada won once, 2-0 over the United States, drew twice and scored only one goal from the run of play.
It's a team that has relied on defense, and something Mexico midfielder David Cabrera admits is a factor.
"We need to improve our communication," he said. "We have given up one goal and that can't happen against a team like Canada."
Cabrera admitted Mexico will be doing a lot of research for the Canadian encounter.
"I saw some of their game against the United States," he said. "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 will try for their first appearance in the competition since competing in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
They know they will have their hands full with Mexico.
"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."
Even though Canada will enter the match as underdogs, forward Evan James felt his team can pull off an upset.
"If everybody on the team works hard for each other for 90 minutes I think we can accomplish anything," he said. "I think it's going to come down to us outworking the other team and believing in ourselves."
Group A champion El Salvador and Honduras, which finished second in Group B, know each other well, sometimes almost too well. The countries have one of the most passionate rivalries in CONCACAF, highlighted by the so-called "Soccer War" in 1969, a four-day conflict between the two nations that in part was flamed by their qualifying matches for the 1970 World Cup.
The two teams already have played one another, a friendly prior to the Olympic qualifying tournament, with the Hondurans winning 2-0 in Houston.
"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."
Suarez wasn't surprised that El Salvador qualified over the United States.
"We can expect anything when it comes to youth players," he said. "They are not mature yet. There will be favorites particularly with Mexico and the United States in CONCACAF, but that doesn't matter when we are talking about youth players. You can't be surprised by anything."
Honduras is trying to qualify for the Summer Games for the third time in four attempts.
El Salvador will be vying for its first and only Olympic berth since the Mexico Games in 1968.
The Salvadorans are still riding the momentum of their last-minute goal to earn a 3-3 draw with the United States, winning Group A and qualifying for the semifinals.
Twice the Central Americans fell behind the U.S. and twice rallied.
"The players won't stop here," El Salvador coach Mauricio Alfaro said. "They have the hope of going to the Olympic Games."