Canadian Men Close to World Cup Qualification

After the elation that was those two November nights in Edmonton, Canada now returns to World Cup qualification action with three stern tests. The international window begins and ends with trips to Central America, in the hot tropical climates of Honduras and El Salvador. Although not too challenging on paper, Canada has historically struggled in that part of the world and it’ll be a real test of this squad’s character to record wins in those hostile environments.

Sandwiched in between is a game that has been circled in the calendar for months, Canada Vs. the United States at home. With a win against the Americans, Canada will cement their legitimacy as a new powerhouse in CONCACAF and open up competitiveness in their rivalry with the Americans that we have arguably never seen before. It won’t be easy, with just three games left after this window all points are vital, and Canada will be short-handed.

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Bayern Munich star and Canadian talisman Alphonso Davies is missing these games due to COVID issues. It’ll be up to other talented stars like Jonathan David, Cyle Larin and Tajon Buchanan to lead Les Rouges to victory in these games. Starting with a trip to San Pedro Sula to face Honduras.

Honduras 0 – Canada 2

Two moments of individual brilliance from Canada made the difference as Canada recorded just their second ever win in Honduras. Just ten years ago, Canada’s 2014 World Cup dreams were ripped apart in a humiliating 8-1 loss in Honduras, but this team is different.

Nine minutes in, Steven Vitória played the ball out to the right-hand side for Buchanan, after a quick pass and go with David, Buchanan was one on one with Honduran defender Diego Rodríguez and he pulled off some excellent footwork to get passed the defender and from inside the box, he played a dangerous ball across the goal which was headed into the net by Honduran defender Denil Maldonado to make it 1-0 Canada.

Canada’s Tajon Buchanan celebrates scoring his team’s third goal against El Salvador during second half World Cup qualifying action in Toronto, on Wednesday. (Photo by The Canadian Press)

Looking to get back straight away, Honduras attacker Romell Quioto picked the ball up around midfield and the CF Montreal striker played a dangerous ball into the box into the path of Alberth Elis, eventually, the ball broke to Anthony Lozano but his shot was deflected wide. The Hondurans claimed for a handball off of Canada’s Samuel Piette but the referee was having none of it.

Related: A Year in Review – Canadian Soccer 2021, Part 1

From the ensuing corner, Canada won the ball and went on the counterattack. David headed the ball into the path of Larin, and the Brampton man drove the ball to the other end of the pitch but at the last minute, Honduran defender Wisdom Quaye intercepted his intended pass for Junior Hoilett, preventing a certain goal. Honduras continued to threaten before halftime, Quioto won the ball in the middle of the field and while he ran upfield, his teammate Edwin Rodríguez played a defence-splitting ball upfield for Quioto to chase, forcing Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan off his line to make a last-minute intervention.

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A couple of minutes later, Honduras flighted another ball into the box and although Borjan went to claim it, Maldonado made contact first to send the ball goal bound, thankfully for Canada Vitória was in the right place to clear the ball and ensure it would be 1-0 Canada at half time.

Canada got off to a fast start in the second half, with the ball around the Honduras box, the ball was played out wide to Sam Adekugbe, the fullback found Larin with his cross who worked the ball to his strike partner David, and David’s effort went just wide of the goal. After clearing a Honduras free-kick from their penalty area, Canada came close again as Junior Hoilett played the ball into the path of David, and the Lille striker went on a dangerous run to the Honduras penalty and jinxed the ball past Maynor Figueroa, forcing Honduras keeper Luis López into a smart save.

Junior Hoilett , The Canadian Press

With a score of just 1-0, Honduras always had a chance to score. With twenty minutes left on the clock, Edwin Rodríguez flighted a free-kick into the box and found teammate Kervin Arriaga who’s sent a bullet header into the right-hand side of the goal, forcing an excellent save from Borjan. Honduras was left wondering what might’ve been. Just two minutes later, Liam Fraser played a flighted pass into the path of David, from then on it was the David show. Immediately through on goal, David needed just two touched to separate himself from the ensuing Honduran defenders, and then when López came out off his line, David finished the move with an exquisite lob from around twenty yards out to make it 2-0 Canada with one of the best individual goals you’ll see all year.

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With the game winding down, Quioto found some space near the Canadians penalty area and his ball into the box found teammate Alberth Elis but his header was once again denied by another excellent save from Borjan to ensure his clean sheet. Soon after the referee blew for full time and for the first time since 1985, Canada had beaten Honduras in the Central American side’s backyard. It wasn’t always pretty, but to win in a hostile environment that has traditionally been where World Cup dreams go to die, this win is a big moment in the culture change that Canadian soccer has been going through in the last few years.  Next up, a mammoth tie at home against the old rival, the United States.

Canada 2 – United States 0

A game that no Canadian will ever forget. Despite attendance restrictions at Tim Hortons Field, the Canadian crowd created an excellent atmosphere, making the 12,000 fans in attendance sound like 50,000. With the support behind them, Canada, in their all-black kit made their mark early.

The wind is always a factor at Tim Hortons Field, and American keeper Matt Turner’s goal kick only went as far as the middle of the field which was picked up by Canada. Jonathan Osorio then flicked the ball to Larin, and after some great link-up play with David, Larin was through on goal and he made no mistake putting the ball past Turner to make it 1-0 to make the home crowd ecstatic.

Cyle Larin. AP

It was only fitting for such an important game to be the setting for Larin to score his twenty-third goal for Canada, making him the top goalscorer in Canadian MNT history. Despite the initial shock, the Americans slowly grew into the game and began putting crosses into the Canadian box and typically having the most of the possession. The Americans won a corner just before halftime, and from the Christian Pulisic in-swinging delivery, Weston McKennie got a header on goal that looked set to make it 1-1. But the man in the iconic track pants, Borjan made a brilliant instinctive save to tip the ball onto the bar and keep the score 1-0. Borjan’s emotional reaction to the save summed how the entire nation must’ve felt and Canada went into halftime with their 1-0 lead intact.

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Canada head coach John Herdman made some adjustments at halftime to counter the American’s dominance of possession and it seemed to work, for the most part, the Americans never looked like they were going to find an equalizer. In fact, it was Canada who looked more likely to score throughout the half. Around eight minutes into the second half, David picked up the ball on the edge of Canada’s box and then used his pace to take the ball past Miles Robinson and take the ball on a run upfield. David then put the ball through Tyler Adams’ legs before playing the ball into the path of Larin. Larin drove into the American box and put a cross across the goal which was just out of David’s reach. From defence to attack in the blink of an eye, Canada’s fast counter-attacking play gave the Americans problems the entire game.

They came even closer to scoring around the seventy-minute mark, the high press worked perfectly as an American clearance was charged down and the ball landed at the feet of Liam Fraser, who found David with a pass and the Lille striker immediately made some space to get a shot on target. Turner could only parry the shot into the path of Larin, but the American keeper redeemed himself by saving Larin’s follow-up effort.

As long as it remained 1-0, the States had an opportunity to equalize, and despite not creating the best chances did continue to have more of the ball. With four minutes left, they piled pressure onto the Canadian goal and the Canadians were struggling to clear the ball amid constant American pressure. Eventually, the ball fell to Weston McKennie, and his flighted ball into the box made its way into the path of Paul Arriola and the Californians acrobatic overhead kick went just wide. That was the closest the Americans would get, as Canada soon threatened again, this time with Junior Hoilett going on an amazing solo run that saw him go past three American defenders and then playing a defence-splitting ball into the path of Sam Adekugbe, however, the left-back blazed his shot over the bar.

Canada’s Sam Adekugbe in action against the United States in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, on Jan. 30, 2022. (Canada Soccer)

With time winding down, Kamal Miller cleared the ball upfield and there to meet his clearance was Adekugbe. Adekugbe skipped past a challenge from Miles Robinson and found himself through on goal with American defenders forced to chase after him. From the edge of the box, Adekugbe picked his spot and place his shot into the left-hand side of the net passed Turner, sealing a famous victory for Canada.

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The final whistle sparked cause for celebration across all of Canada. Against the two CONCACAF powerhouses of Mexico and the U.S, Canada took eight points out of a possible twelve. For anyone who had doubt (couldn’t have been many) Canada is more than a match for Mexico and The States in soccer, you only have to look at the World Cup qualification table. Canada now headed back to Central America for a game against El Salvador.

El Salvador 0 – Canada 2

If results went the right way, Canada could clinch a spot for the Qatar World Cup with a win in San Salvador. But it was touch and go if the game would even go ahead, at one point it looked like a disagreement between the El Salvadoran players and their governing body over prize money would result in the players refusing to play. But the game went ahead, and Canada was in for a battle full of scrappy football and niggling fouls.

The first big chance came on eighteen minutes, Jonathan Osorio played a ball into the Salvadoran penalty box for Adekugbe to run on to and his ball into the box found David whose goal-bound shot was saved by keeper Kevin Carabantes. Carabantes is the El Salvadorans back up goalkeeper, as he was in action again just two minutes later as he was forced to tip Stephen Eustáquio free-kick over the bar, and then he had to force another free-kick shot, this time from Junior Hoilett passed his left post as Canada pushed for an opener.

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Both teams would continue to create chances but failed to significantly test either keeper until the sixty-fifth minute. Larin came on as a sub, and he out-muscled El Salvadoran defender Roberto Domínguez to win the ball just outside the Salvadoran penalty box and his cross into the box found captain Atiba Hutchinson. Hutchinson’s initial effort hit the post, but the ball ricocheted off of El Salvador defender Eriq Zavaleta, and then off of Hutchinson (who at this point was lying on the ground), and then with goalkeeper Carabantes out of position, the ball found its way into the net in what was a very unorthodox passage of play, but ultimately ending in a 1-0 lead for Canada.

With momentum now behind them, Canada almost scored again just a couple of minutes later, Eustáquio’s free-kick found Larin in acres of space, but the striker could only put his header wide of the goal. As the game entered added-on time, the hosts were applying pressure for an equalizer. Midfielder Marvin Monterrosa flighted a ball from deep midfield into the box, the ball was overhit, but suddenly it was goal bound and Canadian keeper Milan Borjan was forced to tip the ball over the bar at the last second to deny Monterrosa a stunning equalizer.

Milan Borjan, Canadian Men’s National Team

Canada cleared the ball from the ensuing El Salvador attack, giving Jonathan David the perfect chance to counter-attack. He won a loose ball in midfield, taking it past Monterrosa in the same move and just like that there was no one between him and the goalkeeper. From the edge of the box, David calmly lobed the ball over Carabantes, making the score 2-0 and sealing the win for Canada, their first win in El Salvador since 1996!

The Next Window

Although results elsewhere meant they will have to wait until the next international window to qualify for the World Cup, these three games have been amazing for the national team. It’s easy to forget that Alphonso Davies, Canada’s star player was unavailable for these games. Canada proved to everyone that they are indeed a talented team who don’t have to rely on any one individual to win matches. I don’t think it’s controversial to say this is Canada’s golden generation. Unbeaten throughout the entire World Cup Qualifying process, and they have conceded just one goal in their last six games! This team is special, and the almost (don’t want to jinx it) inevitable qualification for this year’s World Cup is no less than what this team deserves!

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