Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team continues its quest for the Nations League and World Cup qualification on Tuesday, taking on Cuba for the 3rd time in 2019.
After getting their Nations League campaign off to a dominant start this past Saturday against Cuba, Canada gets another chance to try and take out their Cuban foes, this time within the unfamiliar confines of the Cayman Islands. Make no mistake, Canada is heavy favourites in this one, having beaten Cuba by a combined score of 13-0 over their 2 meetings so far this year, so anything less than a 5-0 victory will probably come as a disappointment.
Cuba would have probably liked to play the game within the borders of their own country, as they have a 30 000 seat stadium in the Estadio Pedro Manerro in Havana that could have served as the venue, but they instead trek over to the neighbouring British Island, Cayman Islands, for this one. It is certainly a weird place to host an important CONCACAF tie, and the irony of it all was not lost on Canadian head coach John Herdman, who was born and raised in England.
“I know as a kid all the rich people in England would go there,” Herdman said with a chuckle when asked about the trip. “But that’s about it. I dreamed about that sort of trip, who would have ever thought I’d see a football pitch there.”
Cuba will be expected to put up a more resilient performance closer to home, with the handful of blowouts this year from both the Gold Cup and now the Nations League surely leaving a big mark on the members of their squad. As they aspire to be the next burgeoning nation to emerge from CONCACAF, strong games against the likes of Canada in this game and the US in the next few months will give them a reason to believe they can do so on a more consistent basis.
They did give Canada a good first half of play, only conceding twice in 45 minutes, once off of a Junior Hoilett strike from distance after a poor Cuban turnover and the other one through an individual moment of brilliance from Jonathan David after plucking down an incisive through ball from Mark Anthony Kaye. They nearly scored as well, almost capitalizing on a Doneil Henry mix-up, but were denied by Milan Borjan, who showed his Champions League-level credentials with the stop.
“They were tough in the beginning,” said hat-trick hero Hoilett after the game. “We found it hard to break them down, we were forcing things in the first half, and we kind of regrouped for the 2nd and moved the ball quicker, tired them out and found the gaps to get through.”
Hoilett played a huge role on Saturday, adding a pair of goals in the second half to get his first national team hat trick, living up to the responsibility imposed to him by wearing the Captain’s armband in his hometown. He was clinical in the key moments, was tactically disciplined and he set the tone for his country in the moments that they needed him the most.
But with Hoilett returning back to England after the match to go attend to family matters, Canada will have to hope that someone else steps up big in his absence. With Canada still having a bunch of names on their squad that have yet to feature much during Herdman’s reign, they will want to use this opportunity to get some valuable playing time in a competitive environment.
“I think there needs to be (rotation), for a number of reasons,” Herdman said when asked of rotating his team ahead of this one. “I think there’s been players that have been coming to these camps where we only able to play one-match windows in those CONCACAF Nations League qualifiers, so guys have rocked up and been patient and hung in there.”
“There’s a few guys I want to have a look at, there are guys travelling from Europe as well that haven’t seen the pitch in a few camps, I want to see. We’re competing, but there’s an element of trying to create some cohesion in certain partnerships and giving people more experience in our tactical identity.”
So while Herdman certainly wants to remain competitive and take out Cuba by scoring loads of goals, improving their goal difference ahead of the US clashes, he understands the importance of assessing his guys and ensuring that they remain bought into the ideas he has been selling them.
Max Crepeau was going to be one of those names that were expected to feature, but the Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper flew home on Sunday, as he picked up a slight knock in training that will keep him out Tuesday. It’s a tough blow for Crepeau, as he was going to play in of these 2 games, but now he must wait, as his next chance will probably have to come in a friendly or next year, barring something unforeseen with starter Borjan.
On the other side, Cuba’s lineup will probably remain relatively similar, with coach Pablo Eliar Sanchez saying last week that his team has been working on various tactical approaches meant to restrict Canada. They did do a good job in that first half against Canada, but it all fell apart, so for Sanchez, it will be about maintaining that drive over a full 90 minutes.
“It might come as a surprise,” Sanchez said after Saturday. “But these guys have been working for a month together and this is only 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 a more unified team that’s going to play against them how we originally planned to play.”
The beauty of CONCACAF is that anything can happen at any given time, so while this game seems lopsided on paper, an upset always remains possible. With Canada’s 2022 World Cup qualifying rivals, FIFA’s 7th ranked CONCACAF side Panama, dropping 3 huge points at home against Bermuda, Canada has a chance to get within 3 rankings points of the plucky central American side, but they’ll want to avoid that kind of upset themselves. In a system like this one, where numbers and rankings are complicated enough to understand, it will be motivating for Canada to see the fruits of their early victories already positively impacting them in their road to Qatar.
But they know that they will have to focus on beating Cuba before relishing being so close to Panama, and until the 90 minutes is completed, that’s far from guaranteed. With a year to go before the 2022 World Cup Qualifying “officially” kicks off with as split into either the Hex or a playoff round, Canada will need to ensure that they remain on a linear pathway towards that looming date, as they look to make the Hex for the first time since 1997 and the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
And for Canadian players like centre back Doneil Henry, who has stepped up as a leader in the squad as of late, they will want to ensure that they maintain high standards against all opponents, preparing themselves for stiffer tests like the US when they do come around.
“These are the games we have to win to earn the respect,” Henry said decisively. “So we’re not looking over Cuba because we still have one more match to go on Tuesday, we’re going to deal with that first, and when the time for the US comes, we’re going to take that.”
“We’re going to push it to another level, we’re going to look at what we did poorly and try to control those moments.”
Injuries/Absences: W Junior Hoilett (Family), GK Max Crepeau (Undisclosed Injury), MF Russell Teibert (Undisclosed Injury)
Canada takes this 6-1 after a slow start scares everyone. David continues to score, Davies breaks his slump, and Kaye and Larin add tallies.
Canada goals: David x2, Davies x2, Kaye x1, Larin x1.
Cuba goals: Reyes x1
Cuba v Canada
September 10 19:15 ET / 16:15 PT
Truman Bodden Sports Complex, George Town, Cayman Islands