The marque match of this world cup qualifying window. The game that everyone has been anticipating since that draw in Nashville in September is almost upon us. Canada sits atop the Octagonal standings undefeated with 19 points with the USA only a point behind. Who would have dreamt of this scenario? Instead of Canada struggling for the intercontinental playoff position the question before us is whether the USA can break Canada’s undefeated run in the final world cup qualifying round.
The game at Hamilton’s Tim Horton’s Field was sold out, twice. Without delving too deep into this debacle we will suffice it to say that attendance was capped at half capacity due to current government covid restrictions, but only after the stadium, which has a capacity just over 24,000, was originally sold out. For those fortunate to have gotten tickets the second time around, bundle up and enjoy.
The game takes place Sunday 30 January with kick-off at 3 pm at what some have humourously dubbed the ‘Iced Teca’. The weather is expected to be played under cloudy skies with temperatures at a balmy -6 degrees Celsius at game time. Whatever the wind chill is forecast to be, one can tack on a few extra digits when playing in the wind tunnel that is Tim Horton’s Field. For the players at least, the artificial playing surface is newer and slightly more forgiving than the hard surface that Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium offered.
There are notable omissions for each team’s roster, both from their current stable of players, and from the last Can-USA game hosted by Canada in October 2019. Gone are the likes of then key participants as Toronto FC’s own Michael Bradley for the US and Rangers FC’s Scott Arfield for Canada.
Some commentary from south of the border suggests Canada has too many MLS players (10 of 25 called up) to challenge, yet the US roster has proportionally more MLS players (13 of 28 call ups) than Canada. However, the reality is that the US is in the same predicament as Canada with regard to the match fitness of out of season players from MLS.
This round of games has seen the ignominious return of ‘Unattached FC’ for both nations. For Canada, centre back Doneil Henry finds himself between clubs as he is not returning to Korean club Suwon Samsung Blue Wings, where he played the past two years. The USA also has a player in the ranks of ‘Unattached FC’ with right back DeAndre Yedlin parting ways with Turkish giant Galatasaray this past week. Should both managers rotate their squads there will be a possibility that both of these players will feature.
Whether either or both managers rotate squads for this game with an eye on their respective third opponents of this round could be crucial to the game. Both John Herdman and Greg Berhalter have rotated players from game to game frequently over the past year. Other considerations include yellow card management and availability due to injuries or covid circumstances.
The FIFA website lists Mexican Cesar Ramos as the referee for Sunday’s match. Well regarded by FIFA officials, Ramos was the sole Mexican referee at the 2018 World Cup where he was responsible for 3 games, and he will be CONCACAF’s representative at next month’s Club World Cup. However, it is important for Canada, and to a lesser extent the United States, to note that Ramos is undaunted when it comes to the issuance of cards.
In Ramos’ last game in charge in Liga MX last week he brandished 2 red cards and 6 yellow cards. The week previous he issued 5 yellow cards and for his last game in December his tally was an astounding 2 red cards and 9 yellow cards. You can see for yourself where this might lead for the game Sunday and the possible implications for Canada’s next game at the Estadio Cuscatlán next Wednesday.
There are no suspensions for either team for the game in Hamilton but Canada has a litany of players carrying a yellow card into the game. Canadians currently with the team with yellows are Mark-Anthony Kaye, Sam Adekugbe, Stephen Eustáquio, Sam Piette, Richie Laryea, Steven Vitoria, and Doneil Henry, with Liam Fraser, Atiba Hutchinson and Lucas Cavallini joining the ranks after the Honduras game. With TFC’s Jonathan Osorio the only CanMNT midfielder in the squad without a card, Herdman and his midfield will be treading lighter than usual to avoid multiple suspensions for Wednesday’s tilt.
The USMNT has only two players in their camp with yellow cards; Tyler Adams and DeAndre Yedlin.
Both teams have injury and covid-19 concerns within their rosters. Canadians are all too familiar with the on-field absence of the dynamic Alphonso Davies. There’s no understating that Davies will be missed. There is no like-for-like replacement, anywhere. If there is a silver lining it is that Canada has more depth to field quality players in similar roles than in past years. Midfielder David Wotherspoon is also out for close to a year recovering from ACL surgery. The Canadians are also waiting for word on Sam Piette’s status after he left the Honduras game in the first half with an ankle injury incurred after a bad foul.
The CanMNT has also been without the services of new FC Porto midfielder Stefan Eustáquio who received a positive covid test last week. However, it is hoped that he may be cleared by a follow up test late this week and will be permitted to join up with the team either in time for the USA game or the game in El Salvador Wednesday. Rumour has it that he may arrive in Canada Saturday afternoon which may make him available for a role off the bench Sunday. Eustáquio’s inclusion or absence could be the key to this match from Canada’s perspective.
The USMNT has been without the service of dynamic young attacking threat Gio Reyna for this entire world cup qualifying campaign. The Dortmund star is extremely versatile and can line up centrally as an attacking midfielder or on either flank as a winger. Jonathan David’s Lille OSC teammate Timothy Weah, who has been working himself back from injury, featured in the El Salvador game as a starter but has not travelled with the team to Hamilton on account of his vaccination status. Christian Pulisic is another starter from the El Salvador match that is recently back from an injury spell that may not be match fit for two consecutive games, but could come off the bench.
Brief rundown of what’s at stake for both teams
Qualification for Qatar 2022 is plausibly a certainty for both teams. In one respect this game is about the race to secure that qualification first, and take the pressure off both teams. Both teams would like to show their best in this new high end rivalry. However, both teams cannot afford to lose sight of the ultimate prize. Qualification for Qatar comes before cross-border derbies.
Sitting atop the octagonal standings, a win for Canada puts them in a very good spot to secure qualification, and will apply added pressure to the US with a game in the Azteca waiting in the next round. Moreover, a loss shines an additional unfavourable spotlight on US manager Greg Berhalter’s job security.
A win for the US, merely a point behind leaders Canada, puts them in an equally good position for qualification, and places Canada under pressure to achieve favourable results in Central America and in their sole remaining home game against Jamaica.
A draw, a result many prognosticators believe to be a probable and equitable result harms neither team too much. It merely refocuses both teams’ efforts toward securing results in their respective third game of this penultimate window of the world cup qualifying.
The US may need to be more strategic about their squad rotation than Canada. With upcoming games in Costa Rica and Mexico in the next qualifying window the USA has a more challenging schedule. Simply put the USA cannot afford to slip up against the likes of Honduras, who they face next, or Panama who they meet next window. The narrow 1-0 home win against a comparatively weak El Salvador team has given cause for concern. As such, Berhalter may withhold some starters from the El Salvador clash and utilize them as substitutes in order to keep them fresh for their Honduras game.
Keys to the Game
There are several factors that Canada needs to pay attention to for success in this game. Firstly, Canada must play the full 90 minutes Sunday afternoon beginning from the opening whistle. The US has a penchant for tight 1-0 victories and can be difficult to breakdown with a lead, as Canada’s defeat at last summer’s Gold Cup bears witness. However, Canada has also shown that it can punch back as the draw in Nashville in September demonstrated.
Game management is the key for Herdman’s Canada. It is vital for the CanMNT to get through the first 15 minutes without conceding. Canada has been much better at this commencing with the November window.
While possession is important throughout the game it is of equal importance for Canada to keep its defensive shape when not in possession. Upon recovering the ball Canada can then hit back with quick counter attacks, such as the magnificent goal scored by Jonathan David in Honduras after latching on to Liam Fraser’s stunning defence splitting long ball.
Finally, closing out the final 15 minutes of the game is a must. Canada can not afford to have any let downs late in the game such as was narrowly avoided in the Mexico game in November. A timely and judicious use of substitutes by Herdman in the game is paramount to this end.
Before positing possible line-ups for the game it must be stated that making such predictions for either Herdman or Berhalter can be be a fool’s errand.