Historically, trips to Central America have not gone so well for the Canadian men’s soccer team, while wins against the United States have been few and far between.
Nearly a decade ago, Canada’s World Cup qualifying hopes spectacularly came to an end in an infamous 8-1 loss in Honduras, while the Reds once went more than 34 years without a victory against the Americans.
How things have changed.
As the region’s only unbeaten team in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying (four wins in eight matches), Canada heads into this week’s international window in the pole position. But daunting trips to Honduras (Thursday) and El Salvador (Feb. 2), and a game vs. the U.S. (Jan. 30) at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field looms exceedingly large, and could go a very long way in determining the Canadian team’s fate.
Canada tops the current CONCACAF table with 16 points with six games remaining. The U.S. is in second place, one point behind the leaders. Mexico and Panama (tied for third) are two points adrift of Canada. Costa Rica (nine points), Jamaica (seven), El Salvador (six) and Honduras (three) round out the standings.
The top three nations at the end of the 14-match group stage, which concludes in March, automatically qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
“We’re in a great position just past the halfway mark in this stage,” Canadian winger Junior Hoilett said. “We just have to stick to what we’ve been doing in our previous games. I don’t think we should let off; we should stay humble and keep pushing our limits.
“We can always improve in certain aspects of our game to get the maximum points in each game. So, I think we just have to remain humble and stick to the game plan and that will get us through these sets of games.”
With three games against three opponents in three countries over seven days, this international window will be the ultimate test of coach John Herdman’s managerial mettle, as well as Canada’s depth. The realities of the global pandemic, that MLS players on the team are in their off-season, and the fact that a number of squad members are a yellow card away from earning a one-game suspension, make this slate of matches even more difficult to navigate for Herdman.
“The depth is an important part of this. We’ve experienced two-to-three game windows (in 2021) and we had to plan carefully on how to rotate the squad,” Herdman told reporters on Wednesday.
“This is probably as tricky a window as you’re going to face, and then add the travel to it. But I keep saying this to the group, ‘This is what we’re built for.’ … We’ve had a lot of experiences that we’ve built on, and I think those experiences have created a foundation where we get into these windows with confidence. Everyone is committed.”
Notably, Canada will be without Alphonso Davies. Regarded as one of the best left fullbacks in the sport, the Bayern Munich star recently developed a minor heart condition after testing positive for COVID-19, ruling him out for all three of Canada’s games.
Loss of Davies a blow
The loss of Davies is a blow for the Canadians, as he is a key contributor to Canada’s attack, with five goals during these CONCACAF qualifiers, and 10 goals and 15 assists in 30 appearances since making his international debut in 2017.
However, Canada didn’t miss a beat at last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup without Davies because of a torn ligament in his ankle, advancing to the semifinals for the first time since 2007. Last September in a World Cup qualifying match, Canada rolled to a 3-0 home win in Toronto while Davies nursed a knee injury.
Influential midfielder Stephen Eustaquio was named to Herdman’s 25-man roster even though he tested positive for COVID, but as of Wednesday afternoon he hadn’t even joined the Canadian team, putting his participation in this window in serious doubt.
“For medical reasons, he’ll be day-by-day. We’re just waiting to see if he’ll be cleared to come in. We’re hopeful that we can see him at any time,” Herdman said.
Canada hasn’t won in Honduras in close to 37 years, and the last time it even picked up a point in the Central American country was in 2004. Likewise, past trips to El Salvador have also been tricky for Canada. A 2-0 home decision against the U.S. in late 2019 was Canada’s first victory over the Americans since 1985.
A lot has changed over the past two years for Canada, who took four out of a possible six points off CONCACAF kingpins Mexico in the qualifiers, including a draw at Estadio Azteca. This is a team full of quality at every position, and Canada is now considered one of the strongest nations in the region. That reputation will be tested during this three-match window, starting off against a desperate Honduras side.
“For us, we had a (fearlessness) of going into the Azteca, and we’ve built a similar frame of mind for here; of going in to be tested, and looking forward to being tested by the crowd, the Honduran team that are really fighting for their World Cup survival, and everything that comes at us,” Herdman said.