Triple Threat: CanMNT put 1 foot in 2021 Gold Cup quarter-finals with big 4-1 win over Haiti

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team rode an early Stephen Eustaquio goal to a 4-1 win over Haiti, their third such win over their Haitian foes in this past month. Here is what stood out from this game, which proved to be a comfortable win for Canada, despite some nervy moments along the way. 

The destination may have been the right one, but the journey to get there was a bit windier than they would’ve liked. 

But for Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team, they will have no complaints whatsoever about picking up a 4-1 win over a plucky Haiti side in 2021 Gold Cup action on Thursday, as they all but booked their spot in the quarter-finals with the win. 

Despite the supposed comfort that a 4-1 win might give off, however, that doesn’t mean that it was easy for Canada on Thursday, far from it, actually, as Haiti was actually the better team for most of the night, as Canada switched off for much of the 90 minutes.

“With Haiti, they never go away,” Canada’s head coach, John Herdman said. “They always find a way through their athleticism and their spirit, just to keep fighting, and they’re a hard team.”

Thanks to a bright start, though, coming via a 5th-minute Stephen Eustaquio goal, and a late flurry to wrap up the game, Canada did what they needed to do in order to win, continuing what has been a strong 2021 for them so far. 

Full credit to Haiti, however, as they were full value for their effort and then some, putting up a valiant effort despite missing 7 players to the COVID, along with a few others due to visa issues, which made them quite shorthanded. Dealing with conditions that might’ve made most teams fold, they stood strong throughout the 90 minutes, giving Canada all the fight that they could handle on the night. 

“I’m very disappointed about the result,” Haiti’s head coach, Jean-Jacques PIerre said after the game in French. “It doesn’t reflect the story of the game. We made some errors, but we showed that we are able to play despite the lack of numbers that we had.”

Returning to Canada, though, this win now gives them 6 points out of 6 through 2 games, all but guaranteeing them a spot in the quarter-finals depending on what happens with the US vs Martinique game on Thursday night. If Martinique were to win, Canada would have to take care of business on Sunday to both qualify and/or win the group, but with a US win or a draw, Canada would guarantee progression to the quarter-finals for the 3rd straight Gold Cup. 

But all-in-all, it’s been a pretty good start to this 2021 Gold Cup for Canada, even if they’ve had a few flashes of soccer that they might want to forget along the way, as they’ve shown a level of professionalism that hasn’t often been seen from them in the past. 

So with that in mind, here’s some of what stood out for Canada in their win on Thursday, one in which they found a way to complete a job that might’ve seemed impossible for past editions of this team. 

Stephen Eustaquio: 

And to start, an unheralded hero got the ball rolling for Canada on Thursday, putting them ahead in just the 5th minute. 

Thanks to the usually quiet Stephen Eustaquio, who tends to do his business in the heart of Canada’s midfield without too much fuss, Canada was able to pick up an early lead against Haiti thanks to a spectacular free-kick from their #7, who scored his second goal in as many games with his tally. 

It was a nice reward for Eustaquio, who has come up big for Canada in World Cup qualifiers this year, doing a lot of the dirty work that went unnoticed due to some high-scoring outbursts from Canada. 

Because of that, to see him score his first two goals for Canada these past 2 games has been a feel-good story for this team, especially seeing how nice the goals actually were, with the other one being a tidy finish from outside the box against Martinique. 

Plus, in almost typical Eustaquio fashion, the goal was far from his most important contribution of the first half, as he continued to cover a lot of ground in midfield for Canada, making some big tackles and interceptions without the ball, while also jumpstarting a few Canadian attacks. 

No matter the opponent, or the level, he always seems to find a way to remain consistent with his play, giving Canada the sort of midfield solidity that’s a big part of their tactical identity, with Eustaquio’s play being a big part of that. 

Still just 24 years of age, the best is still to come from him, too, making him a key part of this Canadian team to keep an eye on going forward. 

“I thought Stephen did very well today,” Herdman said. “Obviously, the free-kick was top-level, and it shows that he has that extra quality, but again, his work rate, it’s infectious.”

A poor response to the opening goal:

But while Eustaquio’s goal and overall play was a big bright spot for Canada, his team didn’t respond to the goal the way that they would’ve liked to, as they were second-best for the rest of the first half and a good chunk of the second half after their opener. 

For whatever reason, they just couldn’t find a way to match the tempo that Haiti tried to play the game at, which considering that Haiti was missing 7 players due to a COVID outbreak heading into this game, was quite surprising to see. 

Canada would have good flashes on the ball, but they’d combine it with some poor decision-making in the final third, along with some elementary mistakes at the back, allowing Haiti to dictate the game. 

Luckily for Canada, Haiti didn’t find a way to punish them for their lackadaisical play in the first half, coming close on a few occasions, but they just couldn’t find a way to break through, before Canada found a way to grab a second in the 51st minute via Cyle Larin.

But if anything, one could hope that the scare would serve as a good reminder for Canada that they aren’t going to be able to walk through this tournament, and that there are no easy games in CONCACAF for a reason. 

“We could definitely play better soccer,” Canadian wing back Tajon Buchanan said after the game. “We all know that. It was a tough game, they’re a team that fights for one another, they never give up, and credit to them for that, but yeah, I was confident in the team, we were all confident in this game that we’d come away with a win.”

Maxime Crepeau:

But it’s important to note that while Haiti didn’t take some of the golden opportunities presented to them, that’s more down to the play of Crepeau in the Canada goal, as he came up huge for Canada in this one. 

From a five-alarm stop on Derrick Etienne not long after the goal, to another on Alex Christian a few minutes later, Crepeau was everywhere for Canada when they needed him to be on Thursday, helping his team avoid a potentially dangerous collapse. 

His goal was eventually breached in the second half, as Stephane Lambese found a way to send the ball into the roof of the net after some nice play in the 56th minute, but other than that, he barely set a foot wrong across the 90, picking up his 3rd win in 2021 for Canada. 

In the midst of what has been a tough year for him at the club level, playing on a struggling Whitecaps team where he only has 2 wins in 11 games, he’ll certainly be happy to find himself in the win column once again, especially considering how big of a role he played in making it happen. 

For a Canada team that is already blessed with a pretty good #1 goalkeeper in veteran Milan Borjan, to see Crepeau step up in his absence is huge, as they’ll know that long-term they’re set in goal. 

If Crepeau keeps playing like this, though, that conversation might start to become a short-term one, which for Canada, is exactly what they’re hoping for. 

“Yeah, he’s a top goalie,” Buchanan said of Crepeau after the game. “He came up big for us tonight, made some big saves, and that kept us in the lead, and credit to him for coming up big.” 

Canada’s captain for the day, Steven Vitoria, also added: “He’s very important for us.”

“We didn’t want him to be tested as much as he was when he came out, we know that we can count him, but we don’t want him to be in those positions.”

Second-half substitutions prove to be key:

Having survived that Haitian pressure until the 60th minute, Canada then found their legs again in the second half, scoring in the 74th and 79th minute to all but guarantee a result. 

But it wasn’t the expected protagonists that stepped up big for Canada, such as their starters, but instead, it was some surprise faces, as Canada made 5 substitutions in a 15 minute period after the 63rd minute, bringing in Samuel Piette, Richie Laryea, Junior Hoilett, Tyler Pasher and Ayo Akinola to run at the Haitian defence.

Thanks to that, Canada nearly immediately grabbed back control of the game, as the fresh legs proved to be too much for the tired Haitian legs to handle, forcing them back into retreat mode, allowing Canada to grab those goals. 

Because of that, it was no surprise to see the substitutes involved heavily in the goals, as well, stamping their impact on the match. 

First, it would be Laryea, who completed a nice run into the box, getting fouled in the process, winning his team a penalty that would be calmly dispatched by Cyle Larin. 

And then it would be Akinola, who on his first touch for Canada in his senior debut, managed to get in behind the Haiti defence, getting fouled by Francois Dulysse, winning another penalty and drawing a red card from the defender, with the spot-kick being dispatched easily by fellow second-half sub, Hoilett. 

After labouring through that rough 60-minute period after their opening goal, it proved to be the boost that Canada needed to take care of business on Thursday, helping them avoid falling into the trap that a game like this can provide. 

“They were very important,” Vitoria said. “We weren’t really finding ourselves in the game, and they definitely helped with that. What’s great about this group is that we’re far more than just 11 guys who start, and they (the subs) came in and had a huge impact, picking up the group.”

Tactics: 

But moving elsewhere, was Canada’s demise a sign that the 3-5-2 they’ve been rocking as of late might need a tweak, or was it more of a sign of them just not playing at their best?

It’s too early to tell, but as of right now it certainly seemed like the latter, as execution appeared to be more of the problem, instead of set-up.

That was most definitely the case offensively, where Canada was just not attacking the space presented to them by Haiti as they have in previous games, playing rather static compared to how they usually play, making it hard for them to penetrate a solid Haitian backline. 

Despite there being acres of space between that solid backline and midfield, Canada instead tried to attack down the flanks, almost forcefully so at times, making it easy to read them. 

To be fair, when you’ve got wide players such as Tajon Buchanan, for example, who set up Canada’s second goal, you can get away with that, but the tactical emphasis cannot be on forcing play through him in wide areas, as it allows defenders to mark him out of the game easier. 

Plus, with the ability that Canada has in midfield, they were unusually shy in the middle of the park, led by quiet games from the usually reliable Mark Anthony Kaye and Jonathan Osorio, who were not able to transition through the middle as they usually do. 

So for Canada, their goal next game has to offer up more control in the middle, thereby opening up space on the flanks, getting guys like Buchanan and Laryea into the positions that they like to operate in on a more regular basis.

As for their defence, their troubles most certainly came down to execution, as they’ve defended solidly in all of their games in 2021, only really giving up a good opportunity here or there on an individual breakdown. 

Unfortunately for them, they decided to have nearly a half-dozen in just the first half alone vs Haiti, as well as some bad ones in the second half, giving their opponents all of the chances that they needed to grow back into the game. 

Thanks to Crepeau and some poor finishing, that didn’t happen, but against another team, if they play that fast and loose, lunging into tackles and losing track of runners on simple through balls, they will get punished. 

When they settled down, you can tell why the back 3 has worked so well for them, as it can be so hard to get in behind, but Canada has to make sure to stay like that all game, instead of giving their opponents life preservers to cling onto, as they did on Thursday. 

So all-in-all, it wasn’t the greatest game from Canada tactically, but this time it was more due to execution, instead of the plan itself, which is good as that should theoretically be much easier to correct and get down ahead of bigger games.  

Eustaquio celebrates his goal from against Haiti (MexSport/Canada Soccer)

In The Mixer:

Lastly, here are some other bits and bobs that stood out from the game, one that was definitely not short on entertainment. 

  • Shout out to Stephen Eustaquio for picking up one of the most audacious yellow cards ever picked up by a Canadian. Already having picked up a yellow card in the opening game, with the 3 points all but secured, Eustaquio got himself in the referee’s book with some obvious time-wasting, suspending him for the last game. One might wonder – why would he do that? But with Canada all but through barring a Martinique miracle against the US later Thursday (a game the US was already winning as of writing), Eustaquio was probably going to rest against the US anyway had Canada beaten Haiti, so at least now he can do so while resetting his yellow card count for the quarter-final. For a Canada team that is often accused of not turning to the dark arts of CONCACAF, it was a cunning move, one that might pay off for any potential quarter-final. 
  • “We did our analysis,” Herdman slyly said when asked about the yellow card after the game. We made some decisions, and I think tonight the guys were really professional about how they managed themselves in the game.”
  • Double shout out to 21-year-old dual-national Ayo Akinola for making his debut on Thursday, winning a penalty (and drawing a red card) on just his first touch of the ball. After picking up 50+ youth caps for the US, even accepting a senior camp nod, it was unsure that he’d ever pick Canada, but he surprisingly did so earlier this month, so it was nice to see him make an immediate impact for his National Team on his debut.
  • Also, dual-nationals have had some pretty good luck when making their debuts this year for Canada. Plus, when you add Frank Sturing’s volley 15 minutes into his debut despite being a centre back, maybe there’s some good luck going on when it comes to being a Canadian dual-national right now…
  • Otherwise, shout out to Tyler Pasher for making his Canada debut as well, although he is a bit older than Akinola at 27, as it’s a just reward for what has been quite the winding journey through the lower levels of the professional US pyramid to get to this point for Pasher. Having slugged it out at the USL for so long, it was nice to see him get a shot in MLS with Houston this year, and he’s taken full advantage of his opportunity, earning this chance to represent his country for the first time. If he keeps playing as he has, as well, this probably won’t be the last time we see him in red, either. 
  • The Haitian player escaping booking scuffing the penalty spot before Larin’s attempt with the referee watching on is about as CONCACAF as CONCACAF can get, that’s for sure.
  • Speaking of Larin, he is now 4 goals away from tying Dwayne De Rosario atop the all-time CanMNT goal charts with 22 goals thanks to his 9th and 10th goals of 2021 tonight. Not a bad run from him in a Canadian shirt as of late. 
  • Lastly, shout out to the broadcast for using the spider cam for the end of the game, after a power outage in parts of the stadium turned off the main cam. No better way to cap off a wild game than trying to follow around what was essentially a drone positioned atop the field for the last 15 or so minutes. 

Looking Forward:

So now, Canada has just 2 days of rest before their big game on Sunday, when they’ll take on the US with a chance to top their group on the line. 

Depending on what the US’s result against Martinique ends up being, the permutations for Sunday’s game will adjust accordingly, but at the very least, a win will guarantee Canada top spot, while a draw may or may not be enough. 

But for Canada, having put one foot in the quarter-final already, they’ll be ready for whatever gets thrown at them, knowing that no matter what, they can take care of business in the last game, putting them in control of their destiny. 

Having done what they needed to do through their first two games, they’ll be confident that they can cap off the group stage with a nice win over their rivals, allowing them to get a more favourable path through the knockout stages in the process. 

As this Canadian team continues their quest to make history, they did what they needed to do in order to win on Thursday, even if it wasn’t always pretty at times. 

“When you score 4 goals against a tough team like Haiti, you’ve got to come off the pitch pretty happy,” Herdman said. “So yeah, when you’re talking about (the first 2) games, and you’ve scored 8 goals across two matches, you’ve qualified for a quarter-final, (you’ve got to be happy).”

Up Next: Canada vs US, Sunday, July 18th, 14:00 PDT, 17:00 EDT (Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas) 

Cover Photo via : Canada Soccer/MexSport

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