On this warm night in San José, Canada and Costa Rica walked out to a dazzling fireworks display ahead of a fiery clash between two teams with World Cup aspirations. The situation was simple: while Canada would qualify with a win, Costa Rica could not afford to lose. The National Stadium, perched more than a kilometre above sea level, greeted Les Rouges with a cacophony of drums and jeers that made it difficult to even hear the national anthem.
Herdman once again opted for an offensive-minded 4-3-3, so far so successful for Canada during the Octagon, with one surprising change. With centerbacks Steven Vitoria and Scott Kennedy relegated to the bench due to lingering injuries, Atiba Hutchinson, sporting the captain’s armband, suited up alongside Kamal Miller at centerback. Alistair Johnson and Richie Laryea flanked them on the left and right, respectively. Stephen Eustaquio and Mark-Anthony Kaye joined Jonathan Osorio in the midfield three. The Canadian attacking corps of Jonathan David, Cyle Larin, and Tajon Buchanan, still without Alphonso Davies following his bout with myocarditis in January, hoped to continue their stellar form in the absence of the team talisman.
Ahead of Les Rouges’ historic night, John Herdman called it, “the most important game of their Canadian national team careers.” However, the Canadians looked out of sorts from the beginning. In the second minute Canada was caught out by a quickly taken Costa Rican free kick that nearly resulted in Jonathan David conceding an early penalty. Then, in the fifteenth minute, Honduran referee Héctor Said Martínez Sorto consulted with the VAR after a rash challenge by Kaye. Kaye was lucky to escape with only a yellow. An audacious dribble by Milan Borjan later almost resulted in a nightmare blunder when his subsequent pass was blocked in front of the net by Joel Campbell.
Then, in the 33rd minute, Johan Venegas walked into an oncoming Kaye far away from the ball and collapsed theatrically. Sorto deliberated for a moment, before sending Kaye off with a second yellow card. Herdman’s undefeated men were faced with their greatest adversity yet this campaign; down a goal and down a player against an experienced opponent that was determined to avoid elimination.
Hutchinson sat deep for most of the game, helping to absorb the Costa Rican press, but did not always look comfortable defensively. A wayward header back to Borjan carelessly conceded a corner, and the Red Star Belgrade stopper was forced into a heroic save after Joel Campbell burned past Hutchinson later in the game.
Costa Rica focused their efforts on an incessant press, but they generated most of their early chances from set pieces, with a few early headers zipping dangerously over the bar. Indeed, their efforts were rewarded with a Celso Borges header just before the end of a frustrating first half. Steven Vitoria’s towering presence was sorely missed amidst the flurry of aerial battles.
Fortunately, Canada emerged from the break reinvigorated. The Men in Black translated the ball possession Costa Rica afforded them plenty of in the first half into tangible chances in the second. Buchanan was unlucky to not equalize after a mazy run from the corner of the 18-yard box opened up an opportunity closed at the last second by Keylor Navas, before Eustaquio skipped a low shot across the goal just wide of the left post.
Canada, which had comeback from a losing position to draw or win four times previously this campaign, again came agonizingly close to equalizing. A darting dribble on the left flank and subsequent shot by Laryea rebounded off of Navas to Buchanan, whose header floated off the bottom of the crossbar.
Herdman made three changes in the second half. Junior Hoilett substituted Johnston in the 69th, while Ike Ugbo and Ismail Koné, who made his senior team debut, replaced Larin and Osorio, respectively.
Hoilett in particular was lively. He shook off two Costa Rican defenders late in the game to set up Laryea for a cross. Laryea, who was brilliant despite not playing a minute for Nottingham Forest since his winter transfer, then squared a cross that David could only nod against the outside of the post. Indeed, the right back was Canada’s best player tonight, skillfully breaking presses with precise dribbling and threatening Navas with audacious shots.
Despite going down to 10 men, a stifling Canadian press seemed to always recuperate the ball every time the Canadians gave up possession in the second half. Admittedly, Costa Rica being content with giving up the initiative, as Luis Suarez’ men focused on preserving the scoreline, contributed to Canada’s dominance in the second half. Eventually, Los Ticos survived the Canadian onslaught thanks to a litany of clearances and a confident performance from Navas. After three minutes of extra time, Sorto blew the whistle on Canada’s first competitive loss in just under nine months.
"I thought these players did their country proud tonight."— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 25, 2022
John Herdman reflects on a gutsy performance from his side in tough circumstances. pic.twitter.com/RLhWct19B1
Ultimately, the Reds were unlucky to lose Kaye to a harsh second yellow, and were centimetres away from scoring during one of their most dominant halves in this qualifying campaign. In some ways, this game should serve as a wake up call, a slap of reality to prepare the national team for even tougher contests awaiting them on football’s highest stage. Canada’s next match up is on Sunday against an already eliminated Jamaica at BMO Field. A draw will be enough to secure that elusive World Cup ticket.