Damage control. Those are two famous words in Canadian Soccer, uttered by Canadian captain Kevin McKenna after Canada fell behind 4-0 at half-time in a now infamous 2014 World Cup qualifier against Honduras.
After that match, “damage control” seemed to become the mantra of the Canadian men’s national team. Under Benito Floro, the manager brought into the pick up a program in pieces, Canada didn’t play to win, they played not to lose.
His successor, and current Canada manager Octavio Zambrano, has taken a far more positive approach. From his very first press conference as Canada manager, he has been vocal about the fact that he believes Canada is good enough to be a top team in CONCACAF. He just thinks they needed to start believing they can win.
That self-belief has made its way onto the field through the first two games of this CONCACAF Gold Cup, and it has been refreshing to watch. Against CONCACAF heavyweights Costa Rica last night, Canada pulled out a 1-1 draw, their biggest Gold Cup result in almost a decade.
They did so by not backing down. Canada were outplayed and out-chanced in the latter stages by an ultimately more skilled opponent, and this result had some elements of luck. But instead of just playing for what was a very important draw, Canada instead kept attacking, looking for a winner.
The mentality shift is also likely due to the fact that Zambrano has brought in a whole new generation of Canadian players. Canada’s starting XI didn’t feature a single player who was on the pitch in 2012 for that 8-1 loss to Honduras in San Pedro Sula.
Many remain blissfully ignorant to Canada’s past failures, which is a good thing. Scott Arfield told Sportsnet’s John Molinaro that he didn’t even know about the team’s Gold Cup goalless drought.
The Scottish-born son of a Toronto native has been central to everything Canada has accomplished so far. His boundless energy and composure on the ball gave Costa Rica all kinds of problems, not to mention his ability from dead-ball situations.
When talking about playing with a lack of fear, though, the embodiment so far this tournament has been 16-year-old Alphonso Davies. With three goals already, Davies has shown a confidence in attack that is incredibly rare for Canadian players, consistently beating players significantly older and more experienced than him.
He isn’t alone. Junior Hoilett plays the same way on the other wing, making Canada a dangerous team on the counter attack. Full-back Michael Petrasso has made great overlapping runs throughout the tournament and combined them with a surprisingly good defensive game.
Beyond Davies and Petrasso, Zambrano has also backed a number of other young players. Samuel Piette has been at his best of late playing as a holding midfielder, while the very inexperienced Mark-Anthony Kaye was a revelation against Costa Rica. Both of these players are only 22 years of age.
Behind all these players has been one of Canada’s most consistent and quality performers in recent years. Whenever Milan Borjan is in net, he gives Canada a legitimate chance to get a result, and did so again last night with a man-of-the-match performance.
Despite the recent string of successes, Canadian men’s national team supporters are likely to stay cautious. After all, great moments have almost always been followed up in short order by great pain for the Voyageurs.
However, the fearless way in which Canada have played these past two games has already made this tournament a step forward. The further they progress, the bigger that step becomes.