Canada suffers big blow in big 4-1 loss to US in their Nations League finale

Canada took on the US on Friday, with plenty of hope surrounding a possible draw or victory. Instead, it was all US in this one, as they cruised to a comfortable 4-1 win.

The nightmare started early, and it didn’t cease over 90 minutes. 

It would be easy to think that we were describing Disney World’s famed ‘Tower of Terror’, a theme park ride known for its fear-inducing moments, but in this case, the description actually fits a football pitch. Around 25 kilometres away from the Tower of Terror, the Canadian Men’s National Team suffered a harrowing defeat at the hands of the US, who exacted some revenge for their loss to Les Rouges a month prior. 

With Canada only needing a draw, it was expected that they come out conservatively, electing to let the game come to them. Instead, they decided to go a little more aggressive, including inserting star forward Alphonso Davies at left back, as well as putting Lucas Cavallini up top, as they looked to catch the US by surprise. 

“As a coach, you come into these matches, and you got to make decisions,” Canada head coach John Herdman said after the game. “The one thing that we anticipated coming into this game was that US press, and we knew that we needed to be a bit more direct, to play over it, and Cavallini gives us a good option in that target man role, to have people like Jonathan David running off, and you got Scott Arfield and Jonathan Osorio underneath.”

It quickly turned on its head however, as the US scored early and often, finding themselves up 3-0 after 35 minutes, before cruising to an eventual 4-1 victory. After getting thoroughly outplayed up in Toronto a month prior, they found some life at home, and nailed coach Gregg Berhalter’s gameplan, putting some life back into a US program in desperate need of some. 

After a flying start out of the gates from Canada, the US drew first blood, as Jordan Morris pounced on a ball at the back post to open the scoring. With Canada sleeping on the set-piece, it allowed the US to whip one in low, and it was flicked on excellently to an unmarked Morris, who made no mistake in front of Milan Borjan.

Despite a push for Canada to tie up the game, the US would soon score again, as they pounced in transition. After withstanding a couple of Scott Arfield chances, they latched onto a poor Milan Borjan long ball and were ruthless on their attack. Jordan Morris got the ball out wide, played Gyasi Zardes into the middle, and the Columbus man made no mistake with the header, doubling the US lead.

Fittingly, considering the rain that hit Orlando before the game, it continued to pour metaphorically for Canada. The US added a third in the 34th minute, through Aaron Long, who leaped highest to a wide set-piece and made no mistake with his header, continuing the party in Orlando. 

The Canadian nightmare continued into the end of the first half, as The Reds would get caught out on an obscure rule. Alphonso Davies, who dropped back on a US attack, flicked a ball up and headed a pass to Borjan. Counted as a backpass due to the circumvention of the original backpass rule, it meant an indirect free-kick was awarded to the US in a glorious position. While they eventually missed the chance, slamming it into the wall, but it was a wild end to a crazy half in Orlando. 

Heading into half time, it was pretty much a nightmare start for Canada, who seemed rattled by the early goal. While the US looked a lot better than they did in Toronto, a lot of the Canada errors seemed self-inflicted, as they lacked the same defensive cohesion that helped them in the 1st game. The US looked a lot better in transition, and did a good job to bypass the Canadian block in midfield, so on their end, the result was merited. 

“They were clinical,” Herdman said. “And good on set pieces, very good.”

He later added: “They really contested in midfield, I think they really contested in the midfield, I think they put a hell of a battle up there, and in defensive transition, their attacking transition they were lethal, they really hurt us.”

For Canada to get back into the game, they needed to calm things down defensively, continue to get the ball into midfield more and work on their play from the back out. While on paper the match looked out of hand, a result was still in the cards, but it was going to need an Orlando miracle to come to it. 

After a lull in the game, where both teams were unable to impose themselves for 15 or so minutes, Canada started to find some life. First, it was Junior Hoilett who forced an acrobatic save from Brad Guzan off the volley, opening up a corner opportunity. And on that ensuing corner, Canada would score their opener, as a Scott Arfield ball was flicked on marvellously to find a wide-open Steven Vitoria at the back post to make it 3-1. 

Yet despite thoughts of a possible comeback sticking around, the US would put an end to those thoughts in the 89th minute, when Zardes added his second of the game. Off a nice flick on a good wide cross, Zardes sent an audacious volley effort towards goal, and he found the net, making it 4-1 for the US. 

It marked the end of a rough evening from Canada, who were just never able to impose themselves on the US. After thoroughly dominating the US in the 1st game, they fell behind early, and from there, it meant a lot of chasing the game. While the US wasn’t overly exceptional with their performance, the scoreline was thoroughly deserved, as they were ruthless with the chances presented to them.  

Overall, it opened up a complicated can of worms for John Herdman, who will have a lot of questions to answer in the coming months. After seemingly finding a formula that worked last time out against the US, he experimented once again for this game, and it cost them massively, as evidenced by the scoreline. 

“We’ve got to learn that if you make mistakes at this level, or if your set-pieces aren’t on clean, you’re going to get punished,” Herdman said. “So all credit to Gregg (Berhalter) and his boys, they’ve silenced some critics here and I wish them all the best.”

After keeping a clean sheet against an arguably stronger US side on paper last time, Herdman made a risky choice by swapping out 2 members of the backline, which hit them hard. Given his role in the last game, not starting Derek Cornelius over Doneil Henry seemed curious on the surface, and it was compounded by the removal of Kamal Miller for Alphonso Davies. While Davies was good going forward, he played a big role in the backline being disjointed, which Kamal Miller would have certainly avoided doing. 

For Canada, they now must wait on the result of the US against Cuba next week, before preparing for an arduous path to World Cup qualifiers in 2020. They had a good chance to make some huge progress in that regard, but they didn’t, so now it’s time to get the calculators out as the math to figure out the numbers continues. 

Player Ratings:

Disappointing: >5

Average: 5

Good: 6

Stand-out: 7-10

Milan Borjan: 5

Alphonso Davies: 6

Steven Vitoria: 5.5

Doneil Henry: 4

Richie Laryea: 5

Samuel Piette: 5.5

Mark Anthony Kaye: 6

Scott Arfield: 6

Jonathan Osorio: 6

Lucas Cavallini: 5.5

Jonathan David: 5.5

Stephen Eustaquio: 7

Junior Hoilett: 6

Derek Cornelius: 7.5

It was a tough night for the defenders, and that reflects on our report card tonight, with second-half substitute Derek Cornelius the lone defender that really scored decent marks tonight. Steven Vitoria looked better when Cornelius subbed in, clearing out several crosses while scoring a goal on the other end, but he was victimized several times on wide balls in the first half. 

Along with Doneil Henry, who was a bit scrambly, and a quiet night from Richie Laryea, it made for a poor performance from the backline. Alphonso Davies was another big culprit, as his defensive organization left a lot to be desired at times, but he made up for it with an inspired second-half offensive performance. 

The rest of the players were mostly uneventful, mixing in moments of inspiration with others that were less than inspiring, hence the rather average grades across the board. Stephen Eustaquio looked good in his second-half stint, as he was sharp in possession in his Canada debut, but besides that, it was a lot of what-ifs. 

Ultimately, it came down to the defensive organization from Canada. Had they stuck with a similar back 4 to the one they had a month prior, it’s unlikely that they concede that early goal, and they would have probably grown into the game. They looked sharp from the get-go, but the wind was taken out of their sails nearly immediately, which is always hard to come back from away from home. 

For John Herdman, it’ll be less about overthinking personnel, as his defensive selections really hurt him in this one, but instead on his tactics, which were actually pretty decent all things considered. 

Looking Forward:

For Canada, this was their last match until likely March, making this loss sting even more. Having played so early in the window, it’ll now leave them to scoreboard watch, as they must now hope for some positive results in other games. Cuba winning or drawing would be massive, if not super unlikely, for their Nations League hopes, while El Salvador dropping points is a must for World Cup scenarios. 

So now, it’s back to the drawing board. It was never going to be easy in Orlando, but at least there is lots to learn from, so now they’ll want to apply some of those lessons in future matches. While it sounds like a broken record in a sense, especially after the Gold Cup, there is potential for good things, as shown by last month, but they now just need to build on those to make them more of a regular occurrence. 

Cover Photo by: Canada Soccer

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