Canada avoid slip-up in tight victory vs Cuba to continue sterling run in the Nations League 

10-men Canada took home all 3 points on Tuesday as they fought off a tough performance from Cuba.

While it wasn’t easy, as suggested by the 1-0 scoreline, Canada’s Men’s National team made sure they took care of business against Cuba on Tuesday, giving them 6 points as they sit on top of Nations League A Group A. It gives them a 6-0 record (qualifiers+tournament) so far in the Nations League, a run they’ll hope to continue into the next match, a huge encounter with the US next month. 

Cuba nearly opened the score in the 4th minute, as they put together a creative set-piece play, catching Canada asleep on a wide free kick. They played the ball into the middle from out on the flanks before playing an incisive ball to Aricheel Hernandez, who struck the ball well from the right side, but Hernandez only found himself denied by the outside of the post. 

Despite their sloppier start, Canada would eventually score in the 9th minute, as Mark Anthony Kaye and Cyle Larin would do well to hunt down a ball in the middle. Thanks to their hard work, they had a 4 on 3 from the half-line in, and Larin played David Wotherspoon on the left, who tried to feed a streaking Kaye down the right side. Cuba’s defence stood strong, clearing the chance, but it fell right to Alphonso Davies, who struck the shot first-time off the volley, sending it off the crossbar and in, opening the scoring with a peach of a goal. 

Canada would nearly double their lead in the 27th minute, as Alphonso Davies would deliver in a nice ball off of a wide free-kick, and it found Mark Anthony Kaye at the back post, who made a great run. But despite his excellent position in the box, he was unable to direct the header goalbound, as he was slightly off-balance, snatching at the ball and sending it just wide. 

Heading into the half, Canada had to surely be frustrated, only satisfied by their lead. While they were in control of the match, they were unable to impose themselves offensively as they had in previous matches, and while a good chunk of that came down to personnel, the choppy conditions in the Cayman Islands didn’t pay them any favours. 

“Look, it’s a learning moment when we come into these conditions,” Canadian coach John Herdman said. “We are all aware that the pitch is bobbling, there’s a level of frustration on the field, you can’t get your rhythm or tempo.”

Things were chippy all match, as two teams that had already played 3 times against each other this year showed some of the animosities built up over that time period.

It came to a head in the 55th minute, when centre back Doneil Henry, already on a yellow card, delivered a late tackle on a Cuban midfielder. After the whistle blew, he was very animated, showing some frustration at the call. Be it the foul itself, or the reaction, but Henry found himself sent off after the incident, making a tough task harder for Canada in the Cayman Islands. 

“I thought the referee could have gotten some cards out earlier in the half,” Herdman said. “I thought he let some things go, which sometimes is good, and sometimes it can cause the frustrations you saw.”

Soon after, they came close in the 59th minute, as Jonathan Osorio put in a great cross off a set-piece, and Larin did well to meet the ball, but he sent the ball just sailing over the crossbar with his header.  

The game would settle into a lull after that, as Cuba would sit back, seemingly fatigued after the last few games, while Canada would pass the ball around without much conviction, killing time and conserving their victory. 

Canada would finish the game up 1-0, as there was a dearth of chances from the 59th minute onwards. With the pair of games against the US now in full picture, Canada will have to bring their best for those ones, as they were unable to pick up the goal difference that would have allowed them some more breathing room if things went slightly south. 

But to look on the positive side, Canada picked up 6 points they might not have otherwise picked up in the past, so at least they still live to fight the US in the fall, as different editions might not have made it to those games unscathed as they currently have done.

Tactical approach:

Canada’s 11 for Tuesday’s clash (Canada Soccer)

After impressing vs Cuba on Saturday, Canada was unable to break down the resilient Island nation on Tuesday, with their lone goal coming early in the match. From there on, Cuba managed to hang tight, defending deep in two blocks of 4, stifling a lot of what Canada tried to do offensively. 

Canada stuck to many of the same principles of Saturday, defending in two blocks of 4 when Cuba held possession, while they attacked in a 4-3-3. The left flank was noticeably improved offensively, with Sam Adekugbe and Alphonso Davies linking up well to give create some of Canada’s best chances, which was positive to see. With Junior Hoilett looking good on the right side with Richie Laryea the last match, seeing Davies and Adekugbe do much of the same on the other should quell some concerns about the attack being too lopsided. After a slow start, David and Laryea found some chemistry as well, and it gave Canada some energy on that flank before the Henry red card slowed the game right down. 

The main concerns were that Canada did not play enough through the middle, which was impacted in part by the absences of key creative midfielders such as Jonathan Osorio and Scott Arfield, who play a big role in that department. Another part of it came down to the conditions of the pitch, as well, as not much was able to be shuttled through that area of the pitch due to the bumps and bobbles it would cause. 

“Tactically we had to adapt,” Herdman said of the middle play. “We couldn’t play through the middle and we knew that, anything straight and you try to play it on one touch and it’s going to bobble, and the Cubans were catching onto that, so we had to get a rhythm down the sides of the field.”

So we know Canada will be strong in their wing play, with Davies and Hoilett putting in strong performances, while David has been strong at both wing and striker. If Arfield is to return, he and Osorio can give them some more in the midfield, while Laryea and Adekugbe pushing forward also gives the wingers space to operate in the middle as well, giving Osorio and Arfield support in their roles. 

The main concern is defending, as we are yet to be sure how Canada will handle the US in that regard, but based on what they’ve shown so far of their offensive foundation, they can certainly put them under some duress. 

We will delve deeper into the tactics of both Canada and the US ahead of their clash, so stay tuned for that. 

Positive and Negative Thoughts:

The play of Richie Laryea has been a big positive from this week (Canada Soccer)

Last game we did rankings, but given that this game concludes the camp, we will do some positives and negatives on what both games offered up. 

  • Positive: Full backs look good offensively. Both Adekugbe and Laryea looked good offensively when deployed against Cuba. The big question with them is how well they can defend going back, as them pushing forward may leave an already questionable backline under more stress, which is a concern. Laryea was pretty good at tracking back, and for the left side, Herdman may just call on the more defensive Kamal Miller once again, if not another option that could find a happy medium of what Miller and Adekugbe provided in their appearances. 
  • Negative: Backline takes a hit. With Doneil Henry’s red card, he finds himself suspended for the US match, which is a big blow for the Canadian backline. Even though he is a bit wild card at times, as shown with his sending off, he is still a great defender in the midst of a great season for Vancouver, and Canada will miss his presence. Stephen Vitoria looks to be a good replacement, however, as he will add some much-needed poise to the back, which maybe was what was lacking at the moment, so maybe this will turn out to be somewhat positive. 
  • Positive: Rising stock creates (good) lineup questions. After these games, Mark Anthony Kaye, Samuel Piette, Richie Laryea, Kamal Miller, Jonathan Osorio and Junior Hoilett gave great impressions of themselves to Herdman ahead of the US. With Davies and David looking good as well, not to mention the absences of Lucas Cavallini, Atiba Hutchinson and Scott Arfield, it gives Herdman lineup questions of the positive variety, as he finds a way to put as many top players on the pitch as possible, while still maintaining a good bench threat. Also if you consider that Canada managed to find a tough away result despite many regulars missing, in conditions that may have caused their best teams to falter in the past, it paints a positive picture of the depth, especially attacking-wise, that Canada is blessed to have at their disposal.

Looking forward:

Canada takes on the US in just under a month, and it’s a game that will provide no shortage of storylines. Will the US, still attempting to implement Gregg Berhalter’s system, be able to put things together and dominate Canada? Will Canada, with all their newfound offensive talent but shakier defence, be able to handle the US while finding some offence against the Americans? How will both teams handle what should be both a hostile crowd and game, with emotions understandably running high, with Canada chasing dreams as their Hex hopes hang on the balance of the game?

There are plenty of intriguing storylines heading into that one, and now that the pair of Cuba games are behind Canada, it will be interesting to start breaking down some of those stories. There are tactical intricacies to break down, qualification process hijinks to math out and plenty of emotional skin of the game, as this much-anticipated derby comes at a crucial junction in the crossroads for both teams, but particularly for the Canadians. Which for Herdman, he’s excited to jump into, as he sees this game like a cup final. 

“You go into the US (game), it’s just a do-or-die match for us,” Herdman said. “And we’re the underdogs, we’re the ones that will rely on that extra adrenaline because there’s nothing to lose in a match like that against the US.” 

“But for us, there’s everything to lose, there’s (nearly) 20 FIFA ranking points, so for us it’s a cup final.”

So stay tuned, as things ramp up heading towards the big game, as we’ll make sure to keep an eye on things ahead of that pivotal clash on October 15th. 

Next up: Canada vs USA, Tuesday, October 15th, 2019, 16:30 PST (BMO Field, Toronto)

Images and cover photo provided courtesy of Canada Soccer from Canada vs Cuba on Tuesday, September 10th, 2019 in the Cayman Islands.

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