Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team is looking to qualify for the Octogonal, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, for the first time since 1997, something that they can do with a win or draw against Haiti on Tuesday. In this, we look at the importance of doing so, looking at what a win could mean for both this program and country in the long-term.
The mission is simple.
Octagon or bust.
For Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team, that has been the goal since they kicked off their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign back in March of this year, but it came all the more real this week, as they now find themselves 1 game away from the ‘Octogonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers.
Having managed to get through the 1st round of qualifiers without much trouble, Canada are now locked in a tense 2nd round battle with Haiti, with a spot in the Octo on the line for the winner of this two-legged series.
Canada took care of business in the 1st leg of this series, as they picked up a huge 1-0 win away in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, on Saturday, but they’ve now got to finish what they started in the 2nd leg on Tuesday.
And make no mistake, what they accomplished in the 1st leg is vital, only adding importance to finishing the job that they’ve commenced. In a tough CONCACAF away environment, the kind that can chew up and spit out teams, Canada came out the meat grinder intact, and they’ll want to make sure that their efforts from that game don’t go unrewarded.
“Look, there’s amber flags on a lot of players, they got pretty beat up in that game, but so did the Haitians,” Canadian head coach, John Herdman, said on Monday. “And I think that’s the beauty of this.”
But despite being the ‘home’ team on Tuesday, they must play that game in Chicago, Illinois, only adding to the difficulty of this task.
Due to strict border rules with the ongoing pandemic, they’ve had to make the US their home for this World Cup qualifying campaign, putting them at a disadvantage compared to a team like, say, Haiti, for example.
It so far hasn’t fazed Canada, as they’ve picked up a sparkling 5 wins out of 5 so far in qualifiers, but for a Haiti team that thrives in chaotic environment, the fact that this game is technically an ‘away’ one for both teams will only benefit them, only adding to what Canada must overcome.
“You sense the chaos in that environment when you’re in that country, they thrive in that,” Herdman said. “So for me, all we’ve done is to say: ‘look, what can we do to prepare our players to the best of our abilities to be ready’, to put our strongest 11 out there, and I think we’ve done that.”
So considering all of that, it’s important that Canada stays on task on Tuesday, as history awaits them if they can take care of business in this game.
Seeing that the last Canadian team who made the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers, formerly known as the ‘Hexagonal’, did so back in 1997, it really shows how huge making it that far for the first time in 6 cycles could be.
They’ve got to do so with a young group, as only 13 of the 25 players that Canada currently have in their squad were even born the last time Canada was in the final round, but as they’ve shown as of late, that supposed inexperience hasn’t stopped them from taking care of business in big games.
But for a Canadian squad that has often found a way to come up short in these sorts of big matches, this is a big step towards proving that these young guns are indeed different, making it important that they dial up their focus for this match, putting everything that they’ve got on the pitch.
“We’ve just got to take the scoreboard out of it,” Herdman said. “Take the time clock out of it, it’s a game where if we let that control us, those expectations and things can come in and start diverting attention. We just want the players to be very clear, if they follow the process, they win the contest.”
And although this Canadian team might be young, it’s important to note how far this group has come already.
From the club level, where there is a crop of players playing at some of the highest levels across the world, winning trophies and making all sorts of noise, to the international level, where this Canadian team has been breaking all sorts of records and beating teams they would have previously struggled against, and it’s clear to see that the mood has improved.
Just look at the rise of someone like Alphonso Davies, as an example. Still only 20 years of age, he’s already won everything that one can win at the club level for Bayern Munich, playing a starring role in their ‘Sextuple’ last year, one in which they won the Bundesliga, DFB Pokal, UEFA Champions League, German Super Pokal, the UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup all in a span of a calendar year.
Along with someone like Jonathan David, who at 21, was the second leading goalscorer on a Lille side that surprised the world by winning a French league typically dominated by Paris Saint Germain and their symphony of superstars, it’s given Canada the sort of star power that they’ve seemingly never had.
Those two have shown their qualities for Canada now, too, as Davies now has 9 goals and 13 assists in 22 games for his country, and is only 1 assist from tying Dwayne De Rosario the all-time leading assist-getter for Canada, while David has a whopping 15 goals and 8 assists in 15 games, and is already only 7 goals away from tying De Rosario as top goalscorer.
For a Canadian team that has often seen some of its best players choose to play elsewhere, or haven’t always been committed to the program, Davies and David have stepped up in a big way for Canada, and they will look to do the same on Tuesday.
“They’re a generation of young guys that are growing up together,” Herdman said of his two stars. “They’re in that generational phase where they listen to the same music, they play the same games, and now they’re both winning in Europe”
And what’s impressive is that talking just about Davies and David sells the rest of this Canadian team short.
Among some of the names on this Canada squad, you’ve got 2020-2021 Turkish SuperLig champion and second-leading goalscorer, Cyle Larin, multiple time Serbian SuperLig winner, Milan Borjan, and future Porto or Napoli midfielder, Stephen Eustaquio, among many others.
Along with the likes of fellow Turkish champion and Canadian icon, Atiba Hutchinson, and 2020-2021 Scottish Champion, Scott Arfield, who both aren’t even in this camp due to injury and fatigue, the depth of this squad extends down further than it ever has before.
That’s why making the Octogonal would be so big for this team.
Playing 14 games against 7 of CONCACAF’s finest in do-or-die games is just the sort of test that this group needs ahead of 2026, where they’ll likely gain automatic entry as co-hosts along with Mexico and the US, and most of their young players will be in their prime.
But seeing where this group is at, there’s no reason why this Canadian team can’t push for a top 4 spot in the Octo, either directly qualifying to the 2022 World Cup if they were to finish in the top 3, or heading to the intercontinental playoff if they were to finish 4th.
For a team with a Champions League winner and a pretty darn good group of champions and up-and-coming youngsters around him, they’d be allowed to dream big if they were to make the Octo.
But before they start dreaming, they’ve got a reality to take care of in front of them, and that’s dispatching Haiti on Tuesday.
So for Canada, the mission remains clear ahead of arguably their biggest match in several years – Octo or bust.
If they can do that, they and several people across this country can do something that they haven’t been able to do much of these past years – and that’s dare to dream again.
“Yeah the mood’s good, the players got a good chance to get some recovery and to just mentally and emotionally reset themselves. We got back after it last night with the leadership group, and then today we just sort of reframed what this new mission is for this game.”
“And it’s pretty clear what that is – take us to the Octagon.”
Up Next: Canada vs Haiti, Tuesday, June 15th, 2021, 18:00 PDT, 21:00 EDT (SeatGeek Stadium, Bridgeview)
Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Abel Arciniega