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At first Holger Osieck's chiselled face was set in stone.

It wasn't until the Canadian soccer coach gave a slight nod that his players broke into wild cheers following a dramatic coin toss late Thursday night that made history and moved Canada into one of its most important matches ever, against Mexico.

Heads, and South Korea advanced in the Gold Cup soccer tournament, at the expense of the Canadians; tails and Osieck's Canadian team, considered little more than fodder by organizers, was in the tournament's playoffs for the first time in three tries.

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"It felt at the time, from the events over the past two hours, it wasn't going to be our day," defender Mark Watson said after a brief practice yesterday.

"The odds were staggering against something like that happening."

Mixed with the jubilation is the knowledge Canada now plays Mexico in tomorrow's quarter-finals at San Diego. Ranked 10th in the world, Mexico is the three-time defending Gold Cup champion and hasn't lost a tournament match since 1993.

"It's another match we really need in order to find out where we stand," said Osieck, whose team is ranked 85th by soccer's governing body FIFA.

"It's definitely a very tough test for us. I hope it's a good one."

The 12-country Gold Cup serves as the championship for CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Associations of Football), and for Canada, is second in importance only to World Cup qualifying.

CTV Sportsnet will carry tomorrow's match (kickoff 5:30 p.m. ET), although it may share the first 15 minutes of air time with the finale of the Calgary-Kootenay junior hockey game. Sportsnet plans to use two boxes to show the hockey and soccer at kickoff, then use a ticker to update the soccer and return to a second box if there are soccer highlights, until the hockey game is over.

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The Canadians rode a more stomach-turning ride than anything they could have found at Disneyland as they joined more than 54,000 people in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Canada's fate hung on the outcome of the South Korea-Costa Rica game: Its possible fortunes ranged from finishing first in Group D to outright elimination.

A Costa Rican goal in the 85th minute resulted in a 2-2 draw, meaning all three teams finished with 0-0-2 records. Costa Rica took first place by virtue of having scored four goals. Canada and South Korea, one of three non-CONCACAF teams invited to the tournament, had two goals each, forcing the flip.

Nervous players and team officials from both countries jammed into a small tent for the deciding toss. Korean coach Huh Jung-Moo was given the option to pick heads or tails. This created a language problem as his choice had to be translated from Korean, into Spanish, then English.

He took heads. The coin landed tails.

"The stars were on our side," said Osieck, an assistant coach on Germany's 1990 World Cup championship team.

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"I'd rather have had it decided on the pitch."

It was only the second time a coin toss had been used to advance a national team in an international soccer competition. The last was in 1968 when Italy and the Soviet Union battled to a 0-0 draw. Italy won the toss and moved into the European Nations Cup final.

Canada will be riding an eight-game unbeaten streak (4-0-4) into their toughest challenge since Osieck took over the national team in September 1998. In 20 previous games against Mexico, Canada has a 2-13-5 record while being outscored 51-12.

In their last meeting, in October 1997, the teams battled to a 2-2 draw at Edmonton during a qualifying game for the 1998 World Cup.

Watson, the Vancouver native who plays for Oxford United in England's Second Division, said the Canadians have no illusions about the challenge they face.

"We have to be at our best and have a little bit of luck," he said. "Really, we shouldn't beat them. It shouldn't happen. We'll give it a go. We've got no reason to hold back."

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