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Canada’s men end the year atop 2022 Concacaf FIFA World Cup Qualifying

And the future looks bright

(Bazyl/Canada Soccer)

This past week crowds of 48,000 and 44,000 stood out in the cold at Edmonton’s Commonweath Stadium, or as it is now known globally, the ‘Iceteca’, to appreciate the beauty of two monumental victories for the CanMNT. In a previous post I stated that with a few fortuitous results elsewhere and if Canada took care of business in its games that the CanMNT would find itself atop the the table. Well, Canada certainly took care of business this window and with Jamaica drawing the USA (this result could have easily been a Jamaican victory) Canada does indeed find themselves at the summit of CONCACAF.

Canada beat Costa Rica 1-0 as expected and then took the game to Mexico for a convincing 2-1 victory to close out 2021. What an emphatic statement Canada made this past week. Not only is Canada in first place in the Octagonal heading into the new year and they remain the only undefeated in the confederation. Think about that for a minute. Prior to this summer results such as as this were just a distant dream.

Defence Continues To Impress

Canada’s defence was superb this window. Limiting a punchless Costa Rica (one shot on target) was somewhat expected. Holding Mexico to no shots in the first half and hanging on for victory was magnificent. The players in front of Milan Borjan simply gave no ground to the vaunted Mexican attack in that first half. In Doneil Henry’s case, he spared no quarter either, setting the tone for a tough physical match in which Canada made it clear they were not going to be bossed around by their CONCACAF heavyweight opponent. And Borjan put on a clinic in heart and steely determination to close out that game.

Previously I have stated that there were three facets of Canada’s game that could use improvement in order to further the team’s success with less stress. Let us quickly review how Canada faired with this wishlist over the two games played this past week.

Score first...check. Canada opened the scoring in both games. Jonathan David’s strike from the centre of the box to sink Costa Rica was as cool as they come from the Iceman. Next game, Cyle Larin’s late first half rebound off a dipping Alistair Johnston strike from distance heaped more misery on a Mexican team that clearly was affected by the Edmonton environment.

Scoring on set pieces...check. Larin’s game winner against Mexico assisted by Eustaquio’s free kick delivery was brilliant. In relation to set pieces, two points observed over these games became ever so clear. Firstly, Alphonso Davies needs to relinquish all free kick and corner kick duties. For the time being at least, Eustaquio has been much better. In addition, Steven Vitoria doesn’t need to be the sole target for all set pieces. Larin is an equally dangerous target on set pieces. Who knew?

Proficiency inside the box...check. Canada made the most of the opportunities they created to win both games. Versus Costa Rica Canada registered two shots on target (both inside the box) with a 1.12 xG and scored the only goal of the game. Against El Tri Canada managed four shots on target (three inside the box) with a 1.13 xG but scored twice to win the game.

Conversely, Canada often-maligned team defence performed well once again. Borjan earned the clean sheet against Los Ticos where their xG was 0.65. Mexico, thanks to their late push, managed 6 shots on target, with a 1.57 xG but only put one past Borjan. It may be time to retire the motif of Canada having a weak defence, at least as far as this qualifying run is concerned.

While happy to see these three points addressed over this window, and in keeping with the rise in expectations for this team why not add another request to the list. That being to not only score first, but to score early. It may be incumbent of Canada to put the opponent on their back foot with early goals and force them to open up. If their November opponents are any indication it appears likely most of their remaining Octagonal fixtures will feature defences playing a low block.

Canada’s depth shone thru this window. Davies was kept off the score sheet both games and Buchanan was a bit unlucky against Costa Rica but also kept off the score sheet. But David came through vs Costa Rica and Larin was brilliant against Mexico. And a new weapon named Ike Ugbo is being readied for increased action in upcoming fixtures next January. These games should finally dispel the widespread impression, among friend and foe, that Canada is only a one man show.

There was much talk of the Panama victory last month being a watershed moment, but truly, the glorious victory over Mexico fits that description more aptly. There’s been many quality performances that started to get opponents talking. But the win over Mexico in Edmonton announced to the world like none of the games played this year that Canada is here. Canada is no longer CONCACAF’s whipping boy. Canada is a team to be reckoned with in the region.

And of course it can’t go without mentioning again that the Mexico game will always be a reference point for Adekugbe’s celly, an iconic moment which should be feted with its own commemorative coin by the Royal Canadian Mint, or a special edition postage stamp from Canada Post. Maybe both.

Offence Tested

The games this window tested Canada’s offence more directly than past games in that Costa Rica and Mexico, both recent World Cup participants, opened their matches playing with five across the back. This presented Canada with the challenge of finding a way to unlock and open their low blocks. Neither opponent gave Canada much space to exploit the wings and allow Canada’s speed to hurt them on the counter. There was little surprise that when Canada found the key to the net it was by attacks down the middle with all three Canadian goals were scored by centre forwards.

Davies was much better against Mexico than in the Costa Rica game. A magnet for opposing defenders, often attracting double and triple coverage Davies didn’t try to force the play as he did last Friday against Costa Rica. He didn’t lose possession nearly as often, hit two of three shots on target and seemed to embrace what the game allowed him; which was to open up space for his teammates.

Aside from poor spot kicks Davies played a solid, if unspectacular, game. He, and to some extent Buchanan, struck fear in the Mexican back line. In the 49th minute Buchanan and Davies were off to the races on a two on one. For reasons unknown Buchanan did not get the ball to Davies cleanly or quickly. Buchanan simply had to lay that pass off into Davies path much better.

The dual threat presented by Buchanan and especially Davies were largely responsible for the lack of any connectivity between Mexico’s back line and Mexico’s midfield. Mexico’s midfielders were forced to hang back to provide double coverage against Canada’s speed demons. When Davies was withdrawn in the final minutes, Mexico began to truly attack in numbers and as a unit, front to back and side to side. Mexico’s midfield, relieved of the task of assisting the defence in watching Davies, was now free to join their vaunted front-line attack and overwhelm Canada’s tiring defence with numbers.

Cyle Larin, in for the rested Jonathan David, was deadly Tuesday night with two clinical finishes from the opportunities presented. What other team in CONCACAF can afford to sit Jonathan David and not have their attack suffer? Although Larin’s goal scoring achievement night rightfully takes most of the headlines, well,at least those not taken up by Sam Adekugbe’s fabulous Canadian celly, not enough praise is making its way towards goalkeeper Milan Borjan and his heroics over the last 25 minutes. Without the spectacular

Larin Scoring Canada’s First Goal
(Bazyl/Canada Soccer)

saves he made at the end, especially the ball he snatched before the line in extra-time, the first 65 minutes of the game would have been largely forgotten as the focus would have turned to gloom and doom about Canada failing to close out a sure victory.

Substitutions were problematic with Henry subbing off in the first half and David, a substitute himself, needing replacement due to injury within 15 minutes of entering the game. But it was puzzling why Herdman did not utilize his fifth and final substitution. And the choice of subbing in Osorio to lock down the last minutes of the game was a curious one as well given the options available on the bench. Davies should not have left the game at all with his speed remaining a constant threat for Mexico to watch. The last last 10 minutes could have used Piette or Kaye in place of either Buchanan or Hutchinson. The latter was running on fumes and struggled one on one near the end and the former lost his man for Mexico’s 90th minute goal.

Guatemalan referee Mario Escobar had a tough challenge with both teams not willing to cede an inch but manged the game relatively well in the first half. But after Canada went up by two in the second half the referee began to steadily lose control of the game with some questionable calls and non-calls that to a neutral observer would appear to have favoured the visitors. The jarring body check laid on Davies just outside the box was but one sketchy non-call. Another being the horse collar on Laryea when breaking forward into the Mexico zone on a two on one. The foul should have produced a yellow card but none was forthcoming as Escobar opted to play an advantage were it no longer existed. Yet, Canada showed composure despite these non-calls and demonstrated a resiliency that was absent in past versions of this team.

The CanMNT concludes perhaps their most successful year in at least 20 years on a high. By obtaining over 30 valuable FIFA points Canada’s men are now ranked 40th in the world, leaping past Costa Rica to become the third highest ranking team in CONCACAF. What is crucial about this is that finishing the year ranked 40 guarantees Canada the coveted top 50 FIFA ranking heading into the winter transfer window. As we know,this provides for automatic qualification for obtaining a GBE (Governing Body Endorsement) to play in England’s top leagues for several Canadians plying their trade in lower tier leagues including MLS.

The present and the future is looking bright for the CanMNT. What’s not to like? The CanMNT’s next action is 27 January 2022 against Honduras a the Estadio Olimpico in San Pedro Sula.