It most definitely wasn’t pretty at times, but Canada rounded off their 2023 Gold Cup group stage run by defeating Cuba 4-2 in Houston. The scoreline wasn’t flattering for the Canucks, who finish second in Group D with four points, but a performance considerably stronger than that of the prior matches is a promising sign.
Naturally, it will be looked on with some dismay, considering Cuba has had a tumultuous time at this tournament: four players defected to the U.S. and Guadeloupe had just run riot against them. Realistically, Canada should’ve come out of the contest with a clean sheet and quite possibly a couple more goals, but sloppiness and poor luck, coupled with plays a matter of inches away from resulting in goals, put that thought to bed. Dayne St. Clair tripped up Luis Paradela in what was a very frantic move in a match not needing it, Dom Zator was unlucky that it just so happened to be his arm outstretched while tracking a defender which caused another penalty, and Jonathan Osorio scored an offside brace. If his runs were timed well, he’d have himself a hat trick to go along with man of the match honours.
Osorio really stepped up, truly taking the role as field general. Running the midfield, his one error was being stripped of the ball by Jose Reyes, which down the line resulted in the first penalty. But Osorio isn’t heralded because of his plays on the back end, he’s known for a scoring touch. Plenty of play has been running through him, but he moved out wide sometimes and really got involved in many aspects of going forward. Osorio also acted as another runner into the box, something crucial for Canada. His finishing skills are obviously there, but now it’s about refining the runs. Had it not been for the extra steps Osorio likely would’ve scored two more. He was so aware in this match, constantly bombarded with passes and the burden to distribute more. Canada’s midfield five charged the ball in the first half, attempting to finish the match before it even started, but they were never ruthless enough to poke the ball out in a very dangerous space.
Speaking of, those areas have been a source of doubt for Canada in the Gold Cup. Crossing has been their kryptonite. On Tuesday, that took a little turn. Granted, Cuba is nowhere near the best opposition and their defence might have been a bit weaker, but getting the ball to Lucas Cavallini wasn’t too much of an issue. One cross that was blocked even resulted in a penalty for Canada due to a handball. Junior Hoilett drew the foul and calmly tucked away the penalty, making history as the first Canadian to score in four Gold Cups.
Canada were 7-for-19 on crosses, which is nothing stellar but certainly an improvement. Ali Ahmed, conversely to the previous match, attempted fewer crosses to dribble more. He recorded four successful dribbles according to SofaScore, and was fouled three times. Surely, that must be the role going forward for him. If it is, then Richie Laryea has options for a short pass on the right wing if a cross isn’t manageable. Canada can’t just pack the box and hope that a cross falls for them, a long ball from a central position or a shot from there would suffice too. It’s somewhat of the style Hoilett has been playing as an option on the edge of the box. He does go for long shots, more than anyone else, but none have finished in the back of the net.
Back to crossing though, and there’s one more thing that has to be mentioned: Canada’s remedy for success on crossing is derived from very quick turnaround plays and grounded, tiki-taka passing. Cavallini and Osorio linked up just like this with a ball to the back post, past Sandy Sanchez, and an easy tap in. Flashing back to the first match, Hoilett and Cavallini linked up in a similar way. What we’re seeing is that this iteration of Canada is very speedy, even in the hottest of temperatures. They need to use that to their advantage, especially in a quarterfinal against the U.S.A. The midfield that B.J. Callaghan’s side uses have been played around with a lot in this tournament and is by far the weakest component that the States deploy. So if Canada’s strong midfield can win that battle and they counter-attack quickly in the opponent’s territory, it should be easy for Cavallini and co. to take advantage pretty quickly.
S. 2 Ep. 21: Canada Doing What Canada Does – FC13 Podcast
Now, the one problem with a pressing unit is that it leaves very few at the back. The U.S.A. just as easily could turn the ball over and exploit Canada’s back three. What saved the Canucks against Cuba was actually substituting Jayden Nelson for Moïse Bombito, who really struggled in a new position. This forced Laryea to drop back and he held down the right side very well. But without many people back there, America could dazzle and break the line. Reyes and Paradela weaved through it easily, thus imagining what a much better side could do isn’t the best thought.
John Herdman could play a back-four – this might help stop the red-hot Jesus Ferreira down the middle as well. It wouldn’t hurt, because then Laryea can join the attacking unit much more as a wing-back, something that Canada would ideally have.
Until the meeting in Cincinatti, Canada has to put their heads down once more and regroup again. Building up chemistry and crossing until it’s the best version possible is essential, so is maintaining a fighting spirit. For Canada’s third goal, Cavallini and Nelson were fighting and pressuring Sanchez so much that he spilled the ball and the latter smashed it home. It’s those types of plays you need more often to ensure the best result possible.
Even with highly-rotated squads, revenge will be front of mind for Herdman’s side.
Top photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images