Canada’s Men’s National team rediscovers calm waters in result vs Cuba

While it ultimately proved to be a rather lopsided affair in Toronto, Canada got its ship back onto steady waters following what was a Gold Cup shipwreck, asserting themselves with a 6-0 victory over Cuba. 

Canada got their Nations League campaign off to a strong start this Saturday, dominating the Cubans en route to a commanding 6-0 victory at the windy confines of BMO Field. Even more impressive for the Canadians is that they could have easily had much more on the night, as they were wasteful with a couple of chances, unable to rack up what may prove to be a crucial positive goal differential. 

After an uneventful first 10 minutes, Junior Hoilett got things kicked off in the 13th minute, firing home past Sandy Sanchez at the near post with a dipping strike from just outside the box, opening the score for Canada. 

Soon after, Canada continued to ramp up the heat, as Jonathan David would score a beauty in the 21st minute. It was a great goal, as he did well to pluck down a clean ball over the top from Mark Anthony Kaye, before undressing a pair of Cuban defenders and slotting home calmly for his record 8th goal in a Canada shirt this year.  

Alphonso Davies had a chance to put Canada up 3 in the 24th minute, but he was unable to direct home a beautiful cross from Laryea, with his central strike being parried onto the crossbar from Sanchez, leaving Canada to chase that second.

Cuba nearly got on the board in the 41st minute, as Doneil Henry completely missed what seemed like a routine backpass, but Cuba’s Maykel Reyes was unable to beat Borjan from in close, keeping things at 2-0. 

That chance would have given Cuba a massive lifeline heading into the second half, but they were instead left to lament lost opportunities heading into the break. It was something that sat tough with Cuban coach Pablo Eliar Sanchez after the match, who thought it could have given them a chance, but he knows that those kind of decisive moments can change the course of a game. 

“The superiority of Canada was shown by the individual players that were able to make a difference,” Sanchez said after the game. “I think the game would have changed a lot if the 2-1 was scored before the half time, but the errors on our side caused the 6-0 scoreline.”

Canada got things started early after the break, as Jonathan Osorio would play in Junior Hoilett on a half-breakaway via an excellent diagonal ball, and Hoilett was composed in his finish, volleying home his second of the night. 

The party continued to roar on at BMO Field, as Canada would add their 4th in the 52nd minute. After David hit the post on a breakaway, Hoilett did well to find a wide-open Jonathan Osorio at the back post, and the TFC man did well to slot home his first of the night. 

Doneil Henry would add a 5th in the 65th, Hoilett would complete his hat trick in the 82nd, and Canada would cruise to the finish line, kicking off their Nations League campaign with a bang. It is yet unsure if they scored enough goals in this one, but they certainly sent the US an opening statement with the overall result. 

Hoilett would earn the privilege of taking home the match ball courtesy of his hat trick, as it capped off a strong performance for him, as he certainly left his mark in his hometown in his first game as captain. But as special as that all was, he was happy to see the progress made by his group, and he was just pleased to be part of it all. 

“We’ve been working hard to work on our strengths,” Hoilett said after the game. “You can see the way we executed out there. Everybody’s trusting each other and we’re growing as a team and it’s great to see and it’s great to be out there with boys”

Player Ratings

Richie Laryea and Doneil Henry look on ahead of Cuba match (Ben Steiner)

Disappointing: >5

Average: 5

Good: 6

Stand out: 7-10

Milan Borjan – 7

Doneil Henry – 5

Derek Cornelius – 5.5

Kamal Miller – 5

Richie Laryea – 8

Samuel Piette – 6

Mark-Anthony Kaye – 9

Jonathan Osorio – 6

Junior Hoilett – 8.5

Alphonso Davies – 4.5

Jonathan David – 6.5

Substitutes:

Liam Millar – 6

Cyle Larin – 5.5

Steven Vitoria – 5

Standout performers:

Leading the way tonight for Canada were Kaye, Hoilett and Laryea. Kaye had a near-perfect match in the middle of the park. He’s come a very long way over the last couple of years and is the Canadian midfielder in the best form at the moment, aiding his team in all areas of the pitch with his positive play and persistent tackling. Hoilett stepped up in his first match as captain and created a number of chances, not to mention scoring a hat-trick, making for a special night for him. Laryea had a stellar performance at right-back. His defensive abilities weren’t really tested today, but at a time where a search for a starting right defender is on, Laryea’s performance will have many talking, as he was stellar in providing Canada valuable width from that right side of the pitch. 

Our lowest performer is Alphonso Davies with a slightly below-average performance for his lofty standards. He did show flashes of brilliance and showed his skill, but what dragged him back was his lack of conviction in key areas of the pitch. He dribbled into trouble on several occasions, and his touch felt heavy in key moments. It does feel as though this sloppiness will be cured simply by playing a more competitive opponent, but it’s not what was needed for Canada tonight.

Tactics:

It was originally hoped that this game could have possibly provided some insight into how Canada will expect to line up against the US in a month’s time, and while it certainly shed some light into that, a lot is still to be answered. 

Canada came out in a 4-3-3, and it was expected that this formation would benefit both the midfield and the attack, with Jonathan Osorio, Mark Anthony Kaye and Sam Piette expected both to shut down Cuba and springboard the dangerous Junior Hoilett, Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies into attack.  

The attack thrived primarily through the right side, as Hoilett, David, Kaye and right back Richie Laryea did an excellent job in their combination play. Laryea was storming up the pitch, adding width, which benefitted both Hoilett and David, because if the Cuban left-back stretched out to cover Laryea, he left plenty of room for the dangerous David and Hoilett, and if the left-back stayed compact, Laryea was doing a good job to get into the box and deliver some dangerous low balls across goal. 

Defensively, they played in a 4-4-2, but despite the set-up, they still pressed high up the pitch when possible. To get the 4-4-2, the wingers, Davies and Hoilett, would tuck back and defend the flanks, while Piette and Kaye would drop and protect the middle of the pitch. Osorio would then push up, becoming a second striker, and he and David would press right onto the Cuban centre backs and goalkeeper, forcing them to play the ball into the midfield earlier than they would have hoped. 

From there, it allowed Piette, Kaye, Hoilett and Davies to close down on them as they crossed the half, which Cuba struggled to do, as they would often find a red shirt right on top of them as they got towards that area of the pitch. 

“It’s the same framework from the Gold Cup,” Herdman said when asked about his tactical set-up. “We want to continue with the same work, players have really bought into that, I feel it gets the best out of them.”

“We attack in a 4-3-3 which is fluid and we defend in a 4-4-2, and whether that is the format for the USA we don’t want to give too much away too early but they’re 2 different games, so going into Cuba, I think in this game we just knew if we could get that first goal and take the wind out of the sails, the same mindset (as the Gold Cup) would open up some scars mentally.” 

Against the US, this may prove to be an interesting set-up, as they have shown to be a team that loves to play from out the back, which Canada might end up unnerving through their press. It would also neutralize the Americans wide threat, as they certainly have some players that can do some damage from those areas on the pitch, including Cristian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, and Canada defending those wide areas will make them have to operate more centrally. 

What that means is that Canada will have to rely on their midfield and centre backs defensively, as the US will be forced into that area of the pitch. Kaye and Piette, if not Atiba Hutchinson, certainly look to have the ability to shield the back 4 on their own, but the questions will be A) how much the US overload the middle in retaliation to this tactic and B) how much of the pitch Canada cedes to the pitch in this tactic. 

If Canada controls enough of the midfield to frustrate the US, as well as finding a way to handle the US potentially pushing play centrally, the tactic can work. If the US finds itself a lot of space on the ball in dangerous areas through an overload and still find a way to get Pulisic and McKennie involved, it may backfire. 

But we still got to remember that this was a game against a Cuban side that just isn’t quite at the level of the US yet. Maybe they will one day, but for now, all conclusions taken from this game must be with that thought process in mind. And as the Cuban coach Sanchez reminded everyone after the game, there is still one more game between Canada and Cuba to think about this week, so Les Rouges will need to bring their best to that one. 

“It might come as a surprise,” Sanchez finished. “But these guys have been working for a month together and this is the first time they play together, so there’s a lot of good things that came out of it, and after the game against Canada today, we will be stronger and be more unified and we’re going to play how we planned to play.”

Looking forward:

Looking towards Canada’s World Cup qualifying chances, the win means that Les Rouges gain three points in the FIFA Rankings. In order to climb towards the crucial sixth spot in the FIFA rankings among CONCACAF members, the Canucks will most likely need to qualify for the semifinals of Nations League A in order to play more significant games come next fall. That means topping their group and for that, goal differential is key, as it is the first tiebreaker if both teams are even on points.

“These two games against Cuba we have to score a lot of goals because when we play the US you never really know what’s going to happen.” Borjan said post-match, referring to the possibility of Canada and the US sharing the top of the group.

It’s a fairly quick turnaround before the second fixture between the two teams in the Cayman Islands. As are all away matches in CONCACAF, it should be a more difficult one, but Canada is nonetheless expected to win, gain 3 more FIFA ranking points, and continue work on the goal differential.

“We just have to come out every game and try to win,” Borjan finished assertively. “And bring Canada to where the place (to be) is, and that’s the World Cup.”

Cuba v Canada

September 10 19:15 ET / 16:15 PT

Truman Bodden Sports Complex, George Town, Cayman Islands

Written by: Alexandre Gangue-Ruzic and Felix Todd

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