Canada took on the US in a much-anticipated clash of two old rivals at BMO Field, as Canada looked to find a much-needed victory, while the US aimed to deny their neighbours a crucial 17 points in their journey to climb the FIFA Rankings.
Under the bright lights of BMO Field, Canada and the US got set to do battle, as they looked to renew their hostilities under the premises of the ‘CONCACAF Nations League’. In a long-awaited clash between two rivals, the first in a competitive setting in nearly 8 years, it was exactly unsure how they would match up when they took the field at approximately 19:33 local time.
And surprisingly, it was Canada that came out on top, ending a streak of futility over the US that spanned nearly 34 years. After John Herdman and his squad had been doubted after some tough results against top opposition at the Gold Cup, they put together a statement game in this one, overrunning the Americans en route to a 2-0 victory. In front of their home crowd, a victory over their rivals provided plenty of euphoria for the Canadians, as they kicked off their ‘road to 2022’ with a bang.
“This is unbelievable,” Borjan said. “First of all, I want to say thanks to all the fans that came out tonight. You know we need more support and we showed that we have a young team who’s going to bring new football to Canada, and this man (Herdman), sitting right beside me here brought that to here. He brought new football in Canada. And I just want to say to him right now in front of all of you, ‘thank you for bringing the spirit, the belief and the energy to these guys’. And this is a big one for us, and this one goes to this man (Herdman) right here.”
The game started off at a frantic pace, as both sides looked lively from the get-go. Canada, in particular, came out firing, as they looked to prove a point to their American neighbours. Alphonso Davies looked a man-possessed in his winger/striker hybrid role, and he found the first chance of the game for the Canadians, cutting inside and delivering a powerful strike that Zack Steffen held well with steady hands.
And Canada continued to press after that, looking unfazed by the prospect of playing a team more than 50 spots higher than them in the FIFA rankings, as they were more than up for the task at hand. With Herdman’s bold 4-man midfield wreaking havoc, the US were unable to breathe much when on the ball early on, and it led to some Canadian chances.
That relentless press would lead to their next chance, as Jonathan David pounced on a poor American backpass, with the US struggling to cope with the Canadian pressure. All alone with Steffen, his first shot would get stopped, before he sent the rebound just wide, sending Canada’s supporters, the Voyageurs, into groans at the near-chance to open the lead.
The US woke up after that chance, as they found the next good opportunity of the game. A nice bit of play through the middle led to winger Jordan Morris being played in through to the right of Canada’s goalkeeper Milan Borjan, but the Canadian goalkeeper would be spared a chance to make a save as captain Scott Arfield lunged in to make a spectacular block.
Both teams would settle into the game after that opportunity, as Canada continued to stymie the US through the midfield, while the Americans tried to find some life on the wide areas of the pitch. When the ref blew his whistle to signify the end of the half, the game was locked up at a merited 0-0 scoreline, as both teams were unable to find an opening marker.
“The boys had nothing but pride in coming in at halftime,” Herdman said. “It was ‘we’re on task , we’re on plan, it was just a calm dressing room. And I think there’s always been a belief in this group, and it was just nice and calm.”
Canada had to be proud of themselves heading back into the dressing room, as they had put up a solid 45 minutes of play, showing that they could hang with their American rivals. Thanks to their 4 central midfielders sitting in the middle of the park, they took a lot of attacking joy away from the US, while still generating a lot of their attacks from that area of the pitch. By being solid through that position of the field, they were able to get David and Davies a lot of chances in transition, as they were both allowed to run at US’s defenders all half.
“Coming in the game we just wanted to play,” Davies said. “Do what we know, play our game, and coming in at halftime we knew we could have stepped it up a little bit more. We were happy, we kept the ball, we didn’t panic, we made a lot of chances in the first 10 minutes of the game, and coming into halftime, we just wanted to keep the same energy in the second half”
So for the Americans, they headed into the half needing to find some life through the middle of the pitch, as their usually strong play deriving from that spot of the pitch was nearly non-existent. They found some joys when Canada was caught in transition, as winger Jordan Morris was notably lethal in the space allotted to him, but overall it was just not enough from them in the first stanza.
The 2nd half got off to a strong start, as both teams emerged from the locker rooms with plenty of energy. Jonathan David nearly opened the scoring, redirecting a nice Richie Laryea cross a just wide, as Laryea had done well to play a 1-2 with Arfield to open up space down the right flank. The US then nearly scored less than a few minutes later, as Morris and Pulisic caused the Canadian backline some discomfort with a nice press, which allowed Pulisic space to shoot an uncontested shot towards goal, but his shot was saved by a diving Borjan.
And Canada would make sure sure that Borjan’s save would not go to waste, as they opened the scoring soon after in the 64th minute. Scott Arfield would find some space after a nice Liam Fraser interception and subsequent line-cutting pass, and he squared a lovely ball across the box. It would catch the US defenders asleep, allowing Davies to slot home the opener at the back post, as the ball slowly rolled over the line after a nice initial recovery stop from an outstretched Steffen. It sent Canada’s bench into ecstasy, as they stormed Davies near the corner flag, while the BMO Field crowd roared their approval. After a good 65 minutes of football, the belief was high, and it gave Canada a much-needed boost heading into the rest of the game.
The game opened up after the goal, as the US started to chase an equalizer, while Canada looked to capitalize on the space opened up. They traded chances in the 70th minute, as first the US’s Jordan Morris forced a nice save from Borjan off a strong header, before second-half Canadian substitute Junior Hoilett got denied by Steffen on a half-breakaway, as the American keeper did well to close down space for the Cardiff City man.
After a tense next 20 minutes, as both teams were unable to break the other down for more chances, Canada’s crowning moment came in the 90th minute. Played in all alone on goal after a nice lofted ball from Jonathan Osorio, fellow second-half substitute Lucas Cavallini had all the time in the world to settle himself for a strike, and what a strike it was, as he slammed a volley low past Steffen to double Canada’s lead. It was the cherry on top of the cake for Les Rouges, who put in a strong performance that will surely quell a lot of the doubters that were lurking before this game.
“I was expecting a pass from Osorio,” Cavallini said of his goal after the game. “Me and him have been playing together since we were small, so I knew the kind of pass he was going to give me, and once the ball just started bouncing, I knew all that I wanted to do was just break the net. And that’s what happened.”
It was the dream end to a dream performance for Canada, who did what they had set out to do, and that was to beat the Americans on home soil. While the implications of the game had made it a lot more complicated than that, with World Cup and Nations League scenarios looming large, it all ultimately just boiled down to a chance to beat old rivals.
And for the players, who had waited so long for a game like this, completing that mission was a huge breath of relief. After facing plenty of questions, as defeats over top opposition loomed large in their memories, just finally getting it done meant a lot.
“It’s too many emotions,” Borjan said. “We’ve been waiting for this long, long time. I’ve been with this program for almost 9-10 years now. And this emotion I didn’t feel before. Like I said, this man (John Herdman) brought a lot of things to this team, and that emotion came out of me, and I turned around with the fans, fans that came out today, it was just unbelievable, something unbelievable. I haven’t felt this here in Canada for so long and this night was something special, special to remember.”
For the US, it was another frustrating result for their program, as they suffered a huge setback with the loss. After a tough 3-0 loss the last window to fellow CONCACAF rivals Mexico, and with all the time it’s taken for manager Gregg Berhalter to implement his system, dropping a result to a team they’ve always managed to beat will be frustrating for them. After failing to qualify for the World Cup the last cycle, the last thing they want to see is for them to fall even further behind the others in the region, and a result against Canada won’t help that. While this Canada team appears to be on the rise, as they certainly have the potential to become among the top 4 teams in the region, it’s still a tough blow for the Americans to stomach.
It will also increase the pressure on Berhalter, who’s system has already taken many hits from critics, with many saying that it’s just too predictable. Given the ease with which Canada was able to game plan and stifle the US’s play through the middle today, it’s not hard to see why those thoughts do persist, and it’ll make the return leg more interesting as we see the adjustments he tries to make.
“So the game plan I could imagine for them was to keep the middle really tight,” Berhalter said after the game, when speaking on Canada’s midfield overload. “Use the two boys up top to counter-attack, and that gave us trouble. We had some close calls in the first half, I felt it was relatively under control in the second half, we came out and started to get more control of the match. And then it was just that the middle wasn’t gonna be open anymore, it was going to be about finding the wide spaces and exploiting that by getting them to shift. And we didn’t train that, so it was on the fly and we did it successfully sometimes and other times not so successfully.”
So it’s clear Berhalter has a lot on his plate to digest ahead of the return fixture in Orlando in just around a month, and his admission of not being prepared for Canada’s midfield block looms large. If they’re unable to find a way to out gameplan their northern neighbours in the next outing, an already vocal anti-Berhalter crew may just get the fuel for the fire they plan to create if results like this continue.
But, to not take away anything from Canada, it was almost what felt like a perfect performance from them. With history on the line, they stepped up, delivering a solid game in both how they fought and how they set themselves up tactically, and it showed in the score.
And the beauty of it all? It’s not over yet. Canada takes on the US soon, so the tactical scheming will only ramp up on both sides. How will Berhalter create more chances next time? Will Canada be able to dominate the middle like that? Those questions loom large as both managers mull over the positives and negatives from this one.
So for Canada, it’s just about enjoying the taste of victory these next few days, and then right back to the drawing board. In a gruelling road towards 2022, the work is far from done, but they’ll enjoy the victories when they do come up.
“Yeah, we made history tonight,” Davies said. “But you know our job is not done, we play them again next month, so our focus is if we can have a repeat of what we did tonight, again in November.”
Canadian Player Ratings:
Milan Borjan: 6
Derek Cornelius: 6
Steven Vitoria: 7
Richie Laryea: 6.5
Kamal Miller: 6
Jonathan Osorio: 7.5
Samuel Piette: 9
Scott Arfield: 7
Mark Anthony Kaye: Incomplete
Alphonso Davies: 8.5
Jonathan David: 6.5
Lucas Cavallini: 7
Liam Fraser: 7.5
Junior Hoilett: 6
The midfielders stood out a lot in this game, as Liam Fraser, Samuel Piette, Jonathan Osorio and Scott Arfield put in shifts at both ends of the field. They did a great job of neutralizing the US offensively, combining that with great attacking play, jumpstarting a lot of the Canadian attacks. Piette was a noticeable standout among the 4, as he was gritty all night, disrupting a lot of tackles, but also composed in pushing the play forward.
Defensively, Canada was solid, working well as a team. Steven Vitoria was a standout among the back 4, as he brought a cool head to the backline, playing composed first balls and winning his duals. After remaining out of the fold for a while, he left no doubt that he should continue to earn call-ups, as well as a good chunk of minutes.
Up front, Alphonso Davies looked like his old self, running at defenders all night. He caused headaches everywhere on the pitch, as his offensive role allowed him to roam the final third, and he did just that. After being shuttled around the pitch for Canada, he looked good in this free role, which may just be his new role going forward for this team. Based on what he did tonight, no one would be arguing against it in the future, as he showed why he made the shortlist for the prestigious ‘Golden Boy’ award.
Canada gets a month off until their next game, when they take on the Americans once again, this time in Orlando. It’ll be a chance for their players to return to their clubs (or rest, in the case of some MLS players), as they look to show that this game was no fluke. With 17 FIFA Rankings Points in their back pockets, they’ll keep a close eye on the updated rankings in a few weeks’ time, as they look to see where they stand in the quest for the ‘Hex’.
In the meantime, stay tuned for more post-game coverage, including a more in-depth review of what worked for Canada tactically, as well as what sunk the US in the same area, as we unpack what was quite the game from both sides. In a drama-filled Nations League campaign at all levels, this was just another chapter added to that.
Up Next: Canada vs USA, Friday, November 15th, 2019, 16:00 PST, 19:00 EST (Exploria Stadium, Orlando)
Cover photo: Martin Bayzl, Canada Soccer