After a long wait, the day is finally upon us, as the US comes up to Toronto to take on their northern neighbours Canada in a CONCACAF Nations League clash with plenty at stake.
In a match ridden with World Cup, Gold Cup and Nations League implications, Canada takes on the US in Toronto on Tuesday, as both teams look to rekindle their men’s soccer rivalry. With this match being the 1st competitive meeting between both sides in 8 years, this game serves as a good chance for both teams to renew some hostilities, as they both enjoy this opportunity provided by the creation of a CONCACAF Nations League.
For these Canada players, many of which who will be playing the US for the first time in this game, they’re excited to see what this rivalry holds. After not faring so well in their only meeting with top CONCACAF opposition at this past summer’s Gold Cup, Canada’s players are ready to quell the idea that they aren’t yet ready to step up as a giant in the region. At home, there’s no better opportunity to do so, especially against their rivals.
“As a player, this is the type of game you dream of, playing against opposition like this,” Canada’s star winger, Alphonso Davies, said. “Every footballer wants to play in games like this, big, big games in front of their home country. As a player, I think this game is a big one.”
This game could be very easily pitted as a David vs Goliath clash, and a quick glance at the FIFA rankings would confirm that, with both teams seperated by 54 spots in the world rankings. Another look at the competitive record when these teams have faced off, with Canada winless over the Americans in 34 years, also seem to point towards a one-way clash.
That doesn’t mean that the Americans will be taking them lightly, however, as they know that those rankings aren’t necessarily reflective of the current world balance. Canada are currently in the incubation period of what appears to be a golden crop of attacking and midfield talent, and with how quickly things can change in this sport, they could be a top team in CONCACAF within the next couple of years.
“We’ve done video for them,” young US midfielder Weston McKennie, who plays in the Bundesliga with Schalke, said. “We know how they like to press and we’re kind of expecting them to press us as well. We’ve had some time to go over our game plan and what we want to do, and I think what we’ve been practicing on doing in the game will work tomorrow.”
The youth movement isn’t just happening north of the border, as well, as the US are in the midst of an incubation of their own. Young talent like McKennie, winger Cristian Pulisic, goalkeeper Zack Steffen, striker Josh Sargent, midfielder Tyler Adams and many more are currently both developing and excelling in their journeys playing in Europe, giving way to a new American generation.
With Canada putting up a pretty impressive crop themselves, with Davies, forward Jonathan David, midfielder Scott Arfield, striker Cyle Larin and goalkeeper Milan Borjan all doing well in Europe, things are looking promising on both sides.
It even extends stateside for Canada, with striker Lucas Cavallini, midfielders Stephen Eustaquio, Mark Anthony Kaye, Jonathan Osorio and Samuel Piette, goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau and defenders Doneil Henry and Derek Cornelius all looking good for their respective clubs. Given the US roster is also pretty MLS heavy, with Michael Bradley, Jordan Morris and Aaron Long noted standouts, it should make for a fun clash between neighbours.
With plenty of that talent being under the age of 26, it should be an exciting next couple of years on both sides of the border, and it’s hoped they get a chance to develop a new rivalry through more games with each other. After 10 years without much to write home about, it’s expected that the next 10 proves to be more fruitful, and with the young talent that’s at display on both sides, it’s not unreasonable to imagine seeing these teams meeting more often in the future.
“We’re both young teams,” McKennie said. “We both have a lot of young players and I think this is the start of I guess you could say a ‘New Era” as far as playing consistently against each other in the future. It might be the same players playing against each other 10 years down the road so I think it’s definitely one to look forward to, one that we’re eager to play, and I think they are as well”
Added US head coach Gregg Berhalter: “I think every game is different, and it’s difficult to take much from that, I think it’s a good Canadian side. Consistent now, as we’ve been saying all week, good players all across the board, well coached, and it’s gonna be difficult games for us.”
A lot of focus ahead of this game has been on how exactly the US will look in this match, as they continue their adjustement to Berhalter, who is known for playing a finely tuned system throughout his coaching career. After showing glimpses of it in games, while on the flipside seeing total disaster moments within those same matches, it’s expected that it soon settles into a nice rhythm of play. After nearly a year to work on drilling philosophies of overloads in wide areas and out the back, inverted full-backs and high-pressing forwards, it’s only a matter of time before it starts all coming together.
And as frustrating as it has been for US fans to see their team stutter as they adjust to the high-flying principles of Berhalter ball, those things can take time. It can be a process, and when coaching a National Team, where meetings together are scarce compared to club football, it isn’t easy to make quick tactical growth. As McKennie alluded to, even for someone like him who’s played at a high level in Germany, it isn’t easy to quickly bring down all the nuts and bolts of a new coaches tactical identity.
“I’d say that it’s a lot better than that was in the beginning,” McKennie said. “For me as well, I was, I guess you could say, not positionally disciplined. In many words you can say that his system’s really taught me to be disciplined, be calm and be patient. The ball is going to come to you. And I think it’s been developing, we’ve had more time to get comfortable with it, and I think many other players have also felt the comfortability of playing with a system, and how we want to press and how we want to build up, and also the system is teaching us that we can keep the ball on and play confidently and comfortably also as well.”
Against a Canada team that is expected to press high up the pitch, looking to limit the space the US likes to build up into, it’ll mean that they’ll have to show good cohesion and game-processing abilities. No matter if Canada sits back and defends deep, or presses right down the US’s throat, space will be there for the taking.
How they interpert that space will be the big underlying factor, and with talented deep-lying midfielders like Michael Bradley in the fold, they do have the horses to do it. It’s now just about executing those principles in game-like situations, which after a pair of friendlies the last window against Uruguay and Mexico, is expected to be less of an issue.
“Yeah, I mean look, if they’re going to step out and press, then certainly our ability to play behind them and to look to put their defenders on their heels will be important,” Bradley said. “If they’re going to try to be aggressive with how their attackers move and attack space, then it still means that when we win balls, we can, if we’re good and sharp, move forward quickly and use the space behind them, so we’ll see how the game plays out.”
While the US remains open on their growth and development in their Berhalter project, the opposing numbers remain a little more coy in their planning, avoiding to tip a hat towards what they plan to do. After appearing to establish a bit of an identity against Cuba, it’s unsure how much of that will carry over, as they may look to gameplan specifically for the US.
And based on the coyness from the usually quite open Herdman, don’t be surprised if Canada has a few aces up their sleeves for the Americans, even if he doesn’t appear to admit so.
“We’ve got some ideas and a plan of how we want to approach it,” Herdman said. “And right underneath this it’s a physical contest and that’s something that someone like Samuel Piette will absolutely relish. So, as I’ve always said, there’s tactics in a game like this, well if you have tactics, it’ll never be won on (just) that. In some games tactics are everything, but in games like this, it’s who’s willing to really impose their will, and if that’s one of the tactics, that we might be something we use here.”
Added likely starting centre back, Derek Cornelius: “Yeah, I know we try to focus a lot on us, we know they’re a good team we know they’re good opposition, but I don’t want to get into too much detail about what they’re going to be bringing because we know we’re going to bring our best. And if we bring that, then we’ll be all right.”
So, with that in mind, it’s certain that Herdman has something. In the chase for valuable FIFA Rankings points, which in CONCACAF would now trade in Gold standard, the opportunity to break up this 10 day window with a Thursday or Friday friendly could have been tempting. Get some players some match fitness, test-run a couple of tactics, get some fans out to watch some football, it could have been a fun time.
But in this sport, injuries happen and unforeseen issues can arise. The Americans can attest to that, as they lost strong Atlanta defender Miles Robinson against Cuba, as he got injured in the post-game cooldown, of all things. It was a big blow for the Americans, and it highlights the exact risk Herdman is looking to avoid, as Canada elected to hold off a friendly for this round of games.
Intead, Herdman and his crew elected to have nearly a week’s worth of training sessions, using the other free time to bond and enjoy the city. With most of this group, bar maybe a few names, expected to be the core of this team heading into 2022, it’s certainly a great time to do so. The leadup is coming up fast, and Canada is going to have to be ready, starting with this game. And with most of the players coming into the break playing good minutes for their clubs, this break in action has made them fresh and ready to go.
So when that whistle blows on Tuesday, expect a hungry team, as they look to shut-down what has been earlier described by Herdman as a ‘well-oiled’ Gregg Berhalter Machine.
“It has pros and cons,” Herdman said, when asked of the decision to not play a friendly before this game.
“The cons are that the US have got some good match rhythm and got some good confidence (from) playing a weaker opponent. Their players haven’t been sitting around the hotel, they’ve been on task and competing. But then the positives are that we’ve been able to work off of the field on some of the cultural aspects, the leadership group have been able to dig in on some areas that I think have strengthened the team, culturally, and then on the field we’ve had a couple of extra training sessions. But I think if you ask players, they just want to play games.”
“For us,” he continued. “If we take a Friday game and you pick up a couple of injuries to key players I still think we’ve got depth, but we’re not we’re not super deep. And I think if there is an X Factor, we did get that recovery period for all of our players,so they’re going in fresh and mentally ready and chomping at the bit.”
“So I think that’s been a benefit for us.”
In a matchup of still-growing Canada against still-learning US, it’ll all eventually come down to who combines what they’ve learned and hard work en route to a complete performance. So while the US come into this one with the upper hand, a one-off game provides a clean canvas, and Canada is hoping to paint their identity all over it. After talks of culture and building an identity over Herdman’s reign, it’s the logical next step to take, as ‘mission 2022’ roars on.
“Tomorrow is only 90 minutes, anything can happen,” Canadian midfielder Samuel Piette said.
“But we got to make sure we put everything on their side, get a result and a good performance and it all comes down to winning your battles.”
Nations League Group A Standings:
|Canada||2 Games Played||6 Points|
|USA||1 Game Played||3 Points|
|Cuba||3 Games Played||0 Points|
Canada vs USA, Tuesday, October 15th, 2019, 16:30 PST, 19:30 EST (BMO Field, Toronto)
Cover Photo: Martin Bayzl/Canada Soccer