All things considered, Canada can be very happy about their performance to date during this CONCACAF Gold Cup 2019. Having scored 12 goals, only conceding 3, the only blemish on their record came on the second matchday, where they fell to CONCACAF giants, Mexico. While that result certainly left a bad taste in the mouths of many Canadian fans, as Canada was unable to trouble El Tri, they won their other games with ease, dispatching Martinique 4-0 and Cuba 7-0 in a bravado offensive display rarely seen from the team north of the 49th parallel.
And, to keep a positive approach, due to the bizarre nature of the Gold Cup, finishing second in Group A has a minimal impact on their knockout round path. Their road to the final will likely run through Mexico anyways, as both Group A and B stay on one side of the bracket, leaving them to avoid Group C and D all together until the final. While in most tournaments teams from their own groups avoid each other until the final, the Gold Cup’s lack of crossover after the group stage gives teams like Canada and Mexico a chance to play a rematch in a semi-final, giving Canada a chance at revenge, provided they take care of Haiti and Mexico takes out Costa Rica next Saturday in Houston first.
Here is how Canada got here:
Match 1: Canada vs Martinique
The much-anticipated opening match for Canada, they got a chance to get their Gold Cup campaign off to a positive start down in California, taking on Martinique at the Rose Bowl in what was a rematch of the 2013 rendition of this tournament, where Martinique surprisingly upset Canada in the same venue. There would be no repeat of that on this afternoon, however, as Canada came out flying from the get-go, creating a lot of chances before scoring their 1st goal in the 33rd minute, and they never looked back, winning the match comfortably by a scoreline of 4-0. Jonathan David continued his great run of form in a Canadian shirt, scoring 2 confident goals and leading Canada to victory, while Scott Arfield and Junior Hoilett both added tallies, giving fans a dominant victory to savour, a rare sight in tournaments past.
While on paper many would think that Canada would be expected to win that game 10 times out of 10, seeing it actually happen was vital to see as John Herdmen continues to break down many of the notions that had been built up about this national team in the past. Canada of old struggled to take care of minnows, often dropping down to their level, so to see Canada come into these matches and dominate has become a new sight to see for fans of the Red and White.
Match 2: Canada vs Mexico
As exciting as it was to see Canada dispatch Martinique in the first match, this showdown with Mexico was a much-anticipated affair, as it would be Canada’s first big competitive test since Herdmen’s appointment over a year ago. A big match at altitude against their CONCACAF bogeyman, fans were expecting Canada to come out and give Mexico a good fight, providing a good litmus test to see where Canada was at relative to some of their continental rivals after having made so much progress in the last year.
But Herdman had other thoughts, coming out with a 3-5-2 that left many of their best players on the sidelines, including Sam Piette, Junior Hoilett, Scott Arfield, Jonathan Osorio and Jonathan David, who had all put in stellar performances against Martinique and would have been expected to do the same against Mexico. Instead, they had Cyle Larin paired together with Lucas Cavallini up front and Will Johnson roaming the midfield, which was a strong deviation from what we have seen up to this point during his time in charge. While he did a good job justifying his decisions, citing a defensive approach as well as not giving away too much about themselves tactically to Mexico due to a possible semi-final rematch, it was disappointing for many fans that were expecting to see Canada’s new generation take on the CONCACAF big guns in a toe-to-toe fight.
Instead, Canada sat deep and played very conservatively, allowing Mexico to tow with their midfielders, as they passed the ball excellently and generated chances at a high rate, putting Canada under siege for most of the game. While the Canadian defence looked resilient, it was only a matter of time until something bad happened and the ball ended up in the back of their net.
That moment came in the 40th minute, when Canada made a turnover deep in their own half, and the ensuing ball into the box was miscontrolled by Zachary Brault-Guillard, who probably should have cleared it, before being pinballed around the box and being turned in by Roberto Alvorado, who picked up the rebound of a Milan Borjan save. Rubbing salt in the wound was that centre back Derek Cornelius was off the pitch receiving medical treatment at that time, and he would have likely been the man covering the unmarked Alvorado when he scored, leaving the question of why no one was able to cover for him while he was off the pitch.
Things did not get much better for them in the second half, when Mexico pulled out a surprising strike from distance to double their lead via the marvellous Andres Guardado in the 54th minute. While you couldn’t help but applaud the strike, it was tough for Canada, who’s defensive line had done so well to minimize the other Mexican chances up to that point, with Borjan having a strong match in behind them.
But, despite the 2-0 deficit, they remained resilient, bringing on Arfield, David and Osorio within a 4 minute period after the goal, giving them some of the offensive punch that they had lacked up to that point. They opened up the match, and gave a faint hope of a comeback.
So, when Lucas Cavallini cut the deficit in half in the 77th minute, heads around the country perked up as Canada got right back into a match that seemed unlikely to head in their favour after the early Mexican dominance. Some hard work from David and a finish from the man they call El Tanque suddenly had Canada feeling some sort of hope in a match mostly devoid of it from their perspective.
But, in typical Canadian soccer fashion, they got their hearts broken by El Tri, as not even 2 minutes after their goal Mexico put the match away, making it 3-1 as they capitalized on a hat trick of defensive mistakes by Alphonso Davies. While he has constantly shown great potential as a full back, allowing Canada to get more of their top attacking talent on the pitch, moments like that showed why many are skeptical of a transition back into the position. It was mostly a mental error that cost him, as he failed to recover after overcommitting in the first place, so it is possible he clears those warts out of his game in the future, but until he does, we are left with moments like that one dividing experts and fans alike.
With Canada eventually falling to that 3-1 scoreline, it left them needing a win over Cuba to guarantee qualification on the last matchday. While that victory over the island nation would nearly be guaranteed at that point due to their many on and off the field issues, they were pretty much assured of a second place finish by this loss, unless Mexico fell to Martinique in their last match.
Match 3: Canada vs Cuba
A crucial game for Canada, a victory was paramount to ensure qualification. While the game was about as easy as a test as they would receive at a tournament like this, with Cuba reportedly losing 4 players due to defection issues despite bringing in a weak squad to avoid losing top players to that in the first place, it was the exact kind of trap game that Canada seemed to fall into in the past, making showdowns like this a lot more nervy than they needed to.
So, when Canada came out and pumped 7 goals past the hapless island nation, it was a big surprise, not because Canada had shown anything this tournament that suggested that it wouldn’t happen, but instead due to the context of past results. Despite not really playing at their best during the match, they were efficient, and did well to play nice football going forward. They were even pretty wasteful at times, overpassing the ball and missing some pretty clear cut chances, including a Lucas Cavallini penalty in the second half that would have given him his 4th of the game at that point. It was a great confidence building game, and seeing Cavallini and David both score hat tricks closed out the group stages with a bang.
The result nearly did win them the group, with Martinique putting up a great performance not long after that nearly beat Mexico, as they fell just short, 3-2. Had they won in any fashion, Canada would have won the group, allotting them a theoretically easier quarter-final match, but instead they are left to lick their chops and prepare to face Haiti, in what should be a tough match down in Houston.
- While Canada did lose their biggest match of the group stage, a tournament in which they have scored 12 goals and only conceded 3 can never be seen as a negative, especially since they qualified through to the last 8. Had the format been different, we likely would have seen Herdman gone for it against El Tri, so instead they made sure they took Martinique and Cuba to the sword and gave a rest/hid tactics against Mexico. This sort of Canadian proficiency at a tournament is unheard of, so look for this team to continue their run and take it to Haiti in the next match, before (hopefully if they win) going to Mexico and giving them a run for their money, behind the strength of the rest and secrecy.
- Speaking of which, the fact that they have a slightly tougher opponent in the quarters may end up as a positive for them, as not only it would prepare them better for Mexico if they win, but it would also give Canada more international prestige and give their squad more confidence. Winning a tournament by going through the likes of Haiti, Mexico and the US would really serve notice to the rest of the region that Canada is here and that they mean business. Even if they don’t make it that far, a win against Haiti and a tight affair against Mexico would do the same trick.
- The attacking depth appears to be a big boost, as highlighted by their offence dominance (12 goals). Even more impressive, they picked up a goal against Mexico, something rarely seen from Canada. Considering they put out an A/B lineup for that one, it would not be a stretch to imagine them doing the same in a potential rematch with Mexico.
- But, while the offence looks potent, there are many questions to be asked of the defence. They did not look good against Martinique, despite keeping a clean sheet, and shipped 3 against Mexico, with the 1st and 3rd goals being less than ideal from a defensive standpoint, before keeping another clean sheet against Cuba despite gifting some pretty sweet chances to their Cuban foes. While they appear to have decent pieces to build around, with Doneil Henry and Derek Cornelius being in good club form so far this season, the injury of Henry coming into this tournament caused more problems than expected as he eased back into action. He appears to be back at full health for now, so the next game will truly show where this Canadian team is at defensively.
- Canada heads into the quarters rather untested under Herdman’s watch, so it will be interesting to see how they cope in a close match if it heads that way. While the Mexico match was supposed to be that test run of that kind of game for this team, their approach and the subsequent result meant that we didn’t get a chance to see how of Canada’s top offensive and defensive players will react in those kind of tight-fought games that we should expect to see often if Canada wants to win this tournament, as well as eventually make the 2022 World Cup down the road.
Player(s) of the tournament (so far):
Jonathan David and Lucas Cavallini
With Canada struggling on the defensive side of things, this award was always going to go to an attacker this group stage. These two Canadian goal scorers have truly brought a dynamic nature to the squad, with Cavallini scoring 4 and David picking up 5 to put themselves 1-2 in Gold Cup scoring. After having had both of them be 1-2 in Nations League Qualifying, the near-future looks set offensively with these two banging in goals for the next while. If Canada can make sure that the service to them remains high-quality, and the defence stays tight, they have as good a chance as any to win some important stuff with this group of players.
Also, no love lost for Alphonso Davies, who gets an honourable mention along with Scott Arfield for doing a good job to get the two frontment the chances they desire. Also, Jonathan Osorio has been great in his midfield role as well, cementing himself into Herdmen’s best 11 for now.
Honourable mentions: Alphonso Davies, Scott Arfield, Jonathan Osorio, Milan Borjan.
Scouting Report: Haiti
Haiti presents an interesting challenge for Canada. While Costa Rica would have been more of a tit for tat matchup in terms of playing style, with Costa Rica building up their play at a much more reserved pace due to their personnel, Haiti loves to play liquid football down the flanks, getting balls into wide areas and into the box at high numbers. Against Costa Rica, they found their two goals that way, with the first one being a one-on-one out wide that turned into a penalty, and the second one being a low cross on the break that found the attacking right back on the other side for a tidy finish. They caused a slower Costa Rican backline all sorts of problems with their speed, pressing them into a few mistakes when they were on the ball and attacking them 1v1 in wide areas whenever the chance presented itself. Defensively, they were not as organized, making a few sloppy mistakes that allowed for Costa Rican chances in tight. They try to play with a lower block, allowing their defenders to defend as a unit instead of relying on overall skill to defend one on one, which can be frustrating if executed right.
While Canada will be familiar with the premise of this style, having played a lot of low-block teams during their Nations League qualifying run, it will be the first time they play a team that does it a high level, as evidenced by Haiti sweeping their group, picking up all 9 points. They defend well in numbers, have some good wide players in Derek Etienne Jr and Jonel Desiré that can wreak havoc out wide, and they have a solid finisher in Duckens Nazon, the Haitian frontman who has 16 goals in 28 caps for his country, while playing at a good level over in the first tier of Belgian football with Sint-Truiden.
So, to counter that, Canada will need to ensure they have solidity in the full back position, that Derek Cornelius and Doneil Henry are prepared to face a lot of threats from wide balls, and that whoever between Atiba Hutchinson and Sam Piette is playing the 6 will be ready to drop back to avoid getting hit on the counter. Offensively, Canada should be fine, as they have shown a strong ability to play the ball around a low block, playing nice little 1-2s and creating shots for Cavallini, David, Arfield and Osorio, be it in the box (Cavallini, David) or outside it (Arfield, Osorio). If they are able to capitalize on the chances they do create, while limiting Haiti to outside runs that don’t amount to much, they should end up winning this match without too much of a headache.
Until then, Canada has 4 full days to train and prepare ahead of this quarter-final clash. It will be a big one, and gives a strong idea of where the Herdman bunch is at. The spirits are high around the Canadian camp as they have high ambitions and trophy aspirations to be fulfilled, starting with Saturday. This year looks as good as any other for them to make a run at it, with Mexico missing loads of key players, old favourites like Honduras and Costa Rica being weakened, and Jamaica, Curacao and Haiti all being at a level at which the Canada can compete at. The big question mark remains the US, who have been all over the map, but Canada wouldn’t have to worry about them until a potential final. Until then, they can only face the team in front of them, so bring on Haiti!!
June 29th, 16:00 PST, Canada vs Haiti, NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas. Gold Cup Quarter-Final.