Octo-bound: CanMNT return to final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying for the first time in 24 years with big 3-0 win over Haiti to close out round 2 action

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team punched their ticket to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, the Octagonal, for the first time in 24 years, as they beat Haiti 3-0 in the 2nd leg of round 2 action on Tuesday. Here’s what stood out from them in this game. 

After a 25 year wait, they’ve finally done it. 

Thanks to a big 3-0 win over Haiti on Tuesday, Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team progressed to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, the ‘Octagonal’, for the first time since the 1998 World Cup qualifying cycle. 

For Canada, it’s a huge win, as they’ll now take on 7 of CONCACAF’s finest in the Octo starting this fall, where they’ll play 14 games, with the top 3 teams after those 14 games heading straight to the World Cup, while the 4th will have a chance to qualify via the intercontinental playoff. 

Having last made the World Cup in 1986, this is their best chance since the early 1990s to finally book their 2nd trip to the world’s biggest footballing party, where they’d get to compete with the world’s best in a sporting fiesta that is hardly unrivalled in global sport. 

It’s a big moment for Canada, who haven’t had many of these moments in the past few years, and that isn’t lost on head coach John Herdman, who was quick to recognize how big this moment is after the game. 

“Just pride,” Herdman said of what he was feeling after a result like this. “Real pride for you guys, for the fans, for people who’ve been waiting for this opportunity for so long. You know it’s an organization that have been relentless in finding a way to make sure that we got into that Octagon, keeping that dream alive of taking the group to the 2022 (World Cup).”

But to do that, they’ve got to overcome these pivotal qualifiers first, and they took a huge step towards doing that by just getting to the Octo. 

It wasn’t always pretty against this gritty Haitian side, but Canada did what they needed to do across both legs of this round 2 tie, picking up a huge 1-0 win in the home leg, before taking care of business in this second leg. 

Playing at their new ‘home-away-from-home’ in Chicago, which has become their temporary digs for this window as they’ve remained unable to play in Canada due to pandemic, it wasn’t easy for this Canadian team, but they found a way to get the job done, making history in the process. 

“Our spirit shone through tonight,” Herdman said. “Which is that Canadian grit, and that spirit, and then our talent came through.”

So now, this Canada team will pivot its focus to the Gold Cup, where they’ll be among the favourites to possibly bring home some silverware, before kicking off their Octo campaign in the fall. 

Until then, however, they’ll have plenty of time to ponder this big win over Haiti, using it as a launchpad towards bigger things. 

With that in mind, here’s some of what stood out from that win, one that Canadian soccer fans won’t soon forget. 

That tough error:

And to start, it’s important to point out the bounce that gave Canada the comfort of a 1-0 lead. 

After a decent first half, one where neither team found a way to break the game open, Canada entered the second stanza looking to grab the 2nd goal that they needed in order to truly grab control of the tie, knowing how important that tally could be in terms of allowing them to grasp control of this game. 

“The first half was really tough,” goalkeeper Milan Borjan said after the game. “We tried to score to get on the board, and then to try and get a clean sheet.”

But even they could not have foreseen the way that they’d actually grab the lead, as a very fortunate bounce would come their way not long after the second half got underway. 

Faced with a simple back pass, Haiti’s goalkeeper, Josue Duverger, received the ball and looked to play a pass forward, making what appeared to be a routine play with the ball at his feet.

Or at least he thought that he did.

As he put his head up to make a pass, he didn’t realize that the ball had quickly slipped under his foot, rolling precariously towards an empty net. When he did see that he’d blundered, though, he quickly tried to recover and tried to clear the ball out, but he then slipped and miskicked the ball, sending it straight into his own net, giving Canada an own goal of catastrophic proportions. 

It was a huge moment, as it gave Canada the 1-0 lead in the game and the 2-0 lead in the tie, giving them full control of the game, while also giving away any sort of momentum that Haiti could’ve had after a decent first half. 

For Duverger, though, it was an even tougher pill to swallow, as he wasn’t even supposed to play in this game, but had put up an excellent performance up to that point to keep his team in the match through 45 minutes.

Only thrown into the mix after Haiti’s main goalkeeper, Johny Placide, was unable to travel to the US due to visa issues, the 21-year-old Duverger had to step in for his #1 in what only was his 2nd start for his National Team. 

Born in Montreal, Canada, he looked up for the occasion against his home country, as well, making some huge stops in the first half, including a triple save on Jonathan David that had the Canadian star with his head in his hands after the sequence. 

So for Duverger, the own goal was a tough way to put a smear on what was such a good performance, but alas, it just wasn’t meant to be for him or his team in this one. 

Canada won’t complain, as it proved to be the turning point for them before what turned into a comfortable win for their side, but one can only wonder how this game would’ve turned out before Duverger’s dream start turned into a nightmare. 

“We knew that we could make a 3-0 scoreline, that was the target prior to the game,” Herdman admitted. “It was to beat this Haiti game 3-0, but yeah, we got a break (to help us get there).” 

Larin continues hot run:

But while Duverger opened the door for Canada in the 46th minute, Larin shut it completely for Haiti in the 74th minute, as he scored a huge goal to put Canada up 2-0, all but putting an end to this tie. 

Having missed a few glorious opportunities beforehand, you wouldn’t have been blamed for thinking that this goal wasn’t going to come from him in this game, but then, he found a way to put a bow on this for Canada. 

1 on 1 with the last defender, he found a way to slip in behind, took on Duverger on a breakaway, before slotting home to put this tie completely to rest.

In the process, he continued a strong run for Canada, as he’s been lights out for his country so far in 2021. 

With this goal, he scored his 7th goal in 6 games, all of them World Cup qualifiers, putting him 2nd in the region behind David Rugamas of El Salvador, who’s only ahead of him by 1 goal heading into the Octo.

And what’s most impressive about this run from Larin? 

How consistent he’s been over that 6 game span, as he scored goals in 5 out of those 6 games, which along with a first game hat trick against Bermuda, has made him Canada’s star performer of these first 2 rounds of World Cup qualifier.s 

For someone who has gone through some big ups and downs with this national team, it’s been a fantastic redemption story, one that Canada will hope carries through into the Octo now. 

Considering what he’s been able to accomplish for both club and country in 2020-2021, however, don’t bet on it stopping anytime soon, which is good news for Herdman and the rest of this Canadian team. 

The defence steps up again:

Elsewhere, all credit has to go to the Canadian defence, who continued their strong run of form in this game, keeping yet another clean sheet, their 2nd in 2 games against Haiti.

And with that shutout, they’ve now kept a clean sheet in 5 consecutive games, a span of over 450 minutes, showing that they’re starting to have the right mentality to defend at a high level in these big games. 

After a rough start to World Cup qualifiers in that department, having given up a goal and some good chances to Bermuda back in March, they’ve stepped up big time as of late, rarely giving up any good opportunities, let alone goals, which has been nice to see. 

“It’s just amazing, because we showed that we are a team,” Borjan said. “We’re brothers, we work hard for each other, we set goals and we want to reach them.”

Considering that the big question mark surrounding this team heading into these qualifiers were pointed at this defensive group, to see them step up like this has been good, as it shows that Canada isn’t as porous in that area of their game as some initially anticipated. 

Heading into the Octo, they’ll have to find a way to take their game up yet another notch, as much stiffer offensive tests await them, but this experience should be valuable for those games. 

And what’s been so big about these defensive performances is seeing who has stepped up for Canada to help make them possible, as some new faces have played some big roles in this newfound defensive solidity. 

While veterans such as Steven Vitoria, Doneil Henry and Milan Borjan have all played their part in helping Canada keep clean sheets, it’s been the likes of Scott Kennedy and Alistair Johnston that have really impressed in these big games. 

Despite only having a combined 6 caps between them heading into this game, they once again looked like they’d been playing at this level for years, putting up standout performances at the back for this Canadian team. 

From Johnston’s quietly good performances as both a right wing back and a centre back these past few games, to Kennedy’s confidence and brashness at the left centre back position, it’s added depth to a Canadian backline that has felt short of it at times, which is good news heading into the Octo. 

With names emerging from all sorts of places at the back, it’s starting to feel like Canada is getting close to having the talent required to compete with the best in CONCACAF, and their play the past few games has reflected that. 

Led by the veteran Milan Borjan in goal, there is no reason that this Canadian team can’t continue this defensive run into the next round, especially considering that most of their success has come from their strength as a collective, instead of individual brilliance.

On a Canadian team loaded with offensive talent, it’s been a nice development to see, and hopefully it’s something we see a lot more of from this team going forward. 

Tactics:

Canada’s Mark Anthony Kaye in action against Haiti on Tuesday (Canada Soccer/Twitter)

And speaking of defensive set-up, it’s important to highlight what worked so well for Canada in this match tactically, as they continued to show good development in that part of their game. 

Rocking the 3-5-2 for the 3rd game in a row, they elected to play much more of a traditional version of the formation, as Doneil Henry slotted in at the back along with Steven Vitoria and Scott Kennedy, giving Canada 3 true centre backs for the first time of those 3 games. 

Along with Alistair Johnston and Alphonso Davies at wing back, Mark Anthony Kaye, Jonathan Osorio and Stephen Eustaquio in the middle, plus Cyle Larin and Jonathan David up front, it was a very fluid set-up, one that took many forms during the match. 

Offensively, it often became a 3-3-4 of sorts, as Davies and Johnston were quite aggressive in getting forward, providing Canada with the width and numbers they needed in attack. They didn’t actually get the ball as much in those wide areas as they would’ve liked, but they helped stretch out the field, and that was good news for the strikers. 

And speaking of those strikers, it’s important to note how good they were at popping up in the space that was cleared up in the middle, as David and Larin found several half-spaces throughout the game, with their finishing proving to be their only downfall. Given how good they usually are at that skill, however, that they just got the chances is a good sign, as you’d expect them to rack up goals on most other nights like this.

Elsewhere, it’s interesting to note that Canada’s best chances actually started in the middle, as Kaye and Eustaquio made some good passes, in particular, but they just didn’t get the ball in the final third as much as they would’ve liked. 

But overall, it was a good offensive performance, as Canada’s movement caused all sorts of problems for the Haitian defence, with their big issue being more of how they finalized their actions, as their work creating them was more than exemplary. 

That’s reflected in the stats, as Canada created 18 shots, 9 of them on target, several of them high-quality looks at goal. 

Defensively, it was more of a 5-3-2 when Canada lost the ball, as they made sure to get numbers behind the ball, nullifying Haiti before they could get close to their box. 

Haiti did find some joy down the wide areas, as Canada didn’t always close them down in the flanks, but for the most part, it was a pretty comfortable defensive performance for les Rouges.

The main interesting wrinkle defensively? That Canada sometimes switched to a 4-4-2 without the ball, which was something they’d previously been doing before this camp, but had mostly gone away from with this switch to a 3-5-2. 

It doesn’t mean too much in the long run, as they’ll likely be bouncing between the two defensive set-ups depending on their opponent, but it was still interesting to see that tweak, regardless. 

So overall, it was quite a solid tactical performance for Canada, as they continued their good run in that area during this camp. Even if there’s still more to come from this team in that regard going forward, they avoided any big blunders, and overall showed the sort of tactical maturity that shows that they’ve started to find an identity under Herdman. 

In the Mixer:

Lastly, here are some bits and bobs from this game that stood out to us.

  • This might be surprising, but it’s worth noting that with the own goal in this game, that was only Canada’s 1st own goal of these World Cup qualifiers, which considering that they’ve so far scored 31 goals this campaign, is quite the cool stat. 
  • Also, speaking of 31 goals, with the goals that they scored in this game, Canada has now scored their most goals in a calendar year. For reference, it’s still only June, and they’ve played just 6 games. That’s not bad. 
  • Shout out to Junior Hoilett for scoring the 3rd goal in this match, as he did well to snatch the late insurance marker in the 89th minute, putting the final nail in the Haiti coffin. For someone who’s currently without a club, it’s been a good camp for Hoilett, who scored 2 goals in 4 games, putting up a good account of himself in front of any potential suitors. Given how important he is to this Canadian leadership group, hopefully a good opportunity materializes soon, allowing him to remain in the fold for more moments like this in the future. 
  • Now, Canada will turn their focus to the Octo, where 14 massive games await them. On paper, they’re arguably a top 3 team in CONCACAF, so these games are huge, as they get a chance to prove those credentials. 
  • Realistically, though, top 4 in the Octo is a good place to aim for if you’re Canada. They were the highest-ranked of the 3 teams to get out of the round 2 of qualifiers, so it shouldn’t be too unrealistic to expect them to dream big and shoot for the stars, and the top 4 is a realistic stratosphere for them to shoot for among this grouping of 8 of CONCACAF’s finest. 
  • But either way, it’s just good to see them back at this final stage. It’s been way too long, and this country needs this. It’s going to be a fun 6 months for Canadian Men’s National Team soccer, and it’s going to be quite the journey to follow along.

Looking Forward:

So now, this Canadian side will get a month off, before taking on Martinique to kick off the 2021 Gold Cup. 

Then, once they get through that tournament, the Octo awaits them in September, when they’ll take on Honduras at home to kick off the 3rd round of qualifiers. 

But until then, this Canada team will take some deserved time off to celebrate doing the job that they’ve long set out to do since the start of these qualifiers, and that’s just to make the Octo. 

Having gone through a grind of a month of June just to get that far, playing 4 games in a span of 12 days, they more than deserve this time off, giving them time to reflect on the grandeur of the achievement. 

“It’s been a hell of a journey,” Herdman said of these games. “As I’ve said, it’s been complicated, but the passion that these guys have shown to get us where we needed to be, in the Octagon, this team deserves it.”

For a country that has experienced a lot of pain in these sorts of games in the past, it’s a huge win, one that can’t be taken for granted, especially considering past heartbreaks. 

Plus, with even bigger games now awaiting them, hopefully that Canada can bottle up this feeling and carry this mood into both the Gold Cup and the Octo, where they’ll be expected to make some noise. 

After having long been an afterthought in CONCACAF, Canada is starting to dream again, and this Haiti win is just the latest example of why they’ve been able to do that in a quickly growing list of them. 

Up Next: Canada vs Martinique, Sunday, July 11th, 2021, 15:30 PDT, 18:30 EDT (Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas)

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Twitter

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