Progression, redemption, retribution, revenge. Whatever narrative you subscribe to, all that mattered was that Canada had another crack at Haiti.
After days of clandestine training and match planning, the day had finally arrived for John Herdman’s men to set down a marker in the first leg of this tie in their bid to progress into the next round of qualifying for the first time since 1997 (“I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy feat. Faith Evans was at the top of the charts around this time in ‘97, a sentiment describing exactly how Canadaian soccer fans feel about this next qualification round).
Herdman made a few changes to the squad that ran out 4-0 winners against Suriname, bringing Mark-Anthony Kaye in for Samuel Piette and Steven Vitoria in for Doneil Henry. Kaye was excellent in his substitute appearance last match, bringing his distinct brand of dynamism and vision to dictate the midfield to offer an attacking threat while also working to protect the backline and break up attacks. Vitoria was brought in for Henry, who is still on the road to regaining his match fitness after injury, and was looked towards to bring his veteran leadership, steady presence and aerial prowess to the match.
Herdman made it clear that the team was out to make a statement in this match and set themselves up well going into the second leg and the team came out certainly showing that intent. The Haitians came out from the start exhibiting their willingness to subject teams to “getting CONCACAFed” as Carnejy Antoine left Scott Kennedy a souvenir on the back of his calf in the 2nd minute, earning himself an early booking.
Despite Canada dominating possession from the start of the match, Haiti came closest through the first ten minutes, with a driven cross from the right side of the box finding a Haitian attacker who forced a fantastic save out of Canadian ‘keeper Milan Borjan before the assistant’s flag went up. Canada looked to grow into the match quickly afterwards after initially looking like they were adjusting to the strange synthetic pitch.
As Canada grew in confidence on the ball, they began to push their hold of possession farther up the pitch, fizzing passes and the resulting whale-tail of rubber pellets that followed all over the Haitian half and in the 14th minute, they found their breakthrough. Stepping up from his midfield position into the final third of the pitch, Kaye received a square pass from Stephen Eusaquio and quickly spotted Osorio out on the right wing at the edge of the Haiti box. After taking a quick touch, Kaye played Osorio through via a clever edge of the box dummy from Richie Lareya and with his first touch, Osorio drilled in a low cross across the 6-yard box to find Cyle Larin clear in space who was able to tap the ball home past Haitian goalkeeper Johny Placide.
Canada continued this pressure early and Larin almost doubled his tally four minutes later. Once again finding himself the beneficiary of Mark-Anthony Kaye’s excellent vision, Larin received a driven long ball in from the LAFC midfielder and was able to use his body to shield the ball, quickly turn the defender at his back, and race through on goal. Unfortunately Larin wasn’t able to, as Terry Dunfield put it, “Thierry Henry ‘’ his hips open enough to pick the far-side bottom corner beyond the ‘keeper’s reach, but Canada’s intentions to attack could not be clearer on this unreliable, rubber pitch.
As the half grew on, Haiti seemed to focus their attack down Canada’s left side, with Scott Kennedy being the focus of their attention and the Jahn Regensburg man met every challenge thrown at him with steady confidence. Kennedy combined well with Stephen Eustaquio on Canada’s left side at times with the midfielder dropping deep to allow Kennedy to step up into space to defend a man or to play the ball forward. The other man on that Canadian left-side, Alphonso Davies, was able to exploit his matchups easily down the wing with his superior technical ability and ludicrous speed, but was forced to spend a decent amount of time down on the deck as Haiti’s only way to stop him was to knock him down.
Canada’s performance through the first 45’ was just about everything you could hope for in an away tie on a strange rubber pitch and with studs up the back of their legs. Despite this chippiness, the Canadians put forth a steady, composed performance and weren’t drawn into any sort of reaction that the types of fouls they were experiencing might usually garner. They remained organized in defence and dealt with the direct attack Haiti looked to employ well, while staying structured in their own attack.
Kicking off in the second half, Alphonso Davies and Richie Lareya swapped flanks, in what was seemingly an effort to not just save Phonzie’s ankles, but to diversify the attack and perhaps give Kennedy more support from the (slightly) more-defensively minded Lareya.
In the 52nd minute, Canada really should have doubled their lead through Jonathan David. Sent clear through by a great ball from Jonathan Osorio, David had the entire half at his disposal, yet somehow ran himself out of real estate as he raced in 1v1 against Placide, forcing a much too comfortable save out of the Haitian goalkeeper. Almost instantly, Haiti almost levelled it up through an audacious bicycle-kick effort from Frantzdy Pierrot, but Borjan was able to meet the strike with an athletic save.
This began a stretch of sustained pressure from the Haitians, with a series of corners ending with Derrick Etienne snatching at an opportunity and sending it wide. Herdman looked to counter this attacking threat by bolstering his defensive core through a Sam Adekugbe for Mark-Anthony Kaye swap in the 62nd minute. Adekugbe, who is the subject of increasing transfer speculation, slotted into his customary left-back role, pushing Lareya back to right-back, Osorio to midfield, and moving Davies up into the attack.
Canada were certainly looking to take the sting out of this match and allow themselves more men behind the ball to begin their attack. In the 77th, Herdman once again shuffled the deck to move further in this direction by bringing on Tajon Buchanan for Richie Lareya and Doniel Henry for Cyle Larin. This shifted Alistair Johnston out to right back and added Buchanan as another pacy, technically skilled offensive outlet to relieve pressure for the run-in of this match. The chippines of the match continued on as sustained, quality offensive opportunities were left wanting. Canada remained resolute and organized defensively and were able to maintain their grasp of the match.
With about ten minutes of regulation left and with the second leg in mind, Herdman decided to remove Osorio and Jonathan David from the match, bringing on Samuel Piette to help anchor the midfield and Lucas Cavallini on to torment the tired Hatian backline. Cavallini’s aerial threat almost came into effect immediately as he was able to head an excellent Stephen Eustaquio free kick into the path of a wide open Scott Kennedy in the Hatian box, but the centreback wasn’t able to show a decisive edge to get on the end of the effort and Johny Placide was able to collect the ball.
As the final whistle blew, Canada will be very happy with the result and the clean sheet, but will not yet feel satisfied. They should have scored more, but it’s the result that matters most, especially with them now taking an away goal into a “home” match with a pitch and environment they are more comfortable with. Canada was great in possession in this match, with the midfield trio of Kaye, Eustaquio, and Osorio giving the side a comfortable possession advantage in the middle of the park, allowing them to dictate the play on both sides of the ball. The combination of Kaye and Eustaquio at the base of the midfield was especially effective today, a partnership that John Herdman will certainly be looking to develop as this team grows together.
The job is only half done, but Herdman’s men head back to Chicago in a good position in their quest to advance. Veteran fans of the Canadian national team will know well the precarious position a first leg lead eventually found the side in in the past (I won’t bring it up, I promise. You’re safe here), but this is a different Canada altogether. There is a different energy, a different commitment, a different outlook to this team and most importantly, a different quality. Canada will be well aware of the frailties of the past, but they’re also aware of the potential going forward. Now, it’s up to them to grab this opportunity with both hands.
This new era of Canadian soccer looks to ride this momentum into Chicago next week, with the second leg kicking off at 9:05 ET on Tuesday, June 15th live on OneSoccer.