Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team beat Costa Rica on Sunday night, punching their ticket to the semi-finals of the 2021 Gold Cup, a stage they haven’t reached since 2007. Here’s what stood out to us from that game.
With a chance to change some recent history, they didn’t shrink in front of the bright lights.
As they looked to return to the semi-finals of the Gold Cup for the first time since 2007, Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team had every reason to be nervous ahead of their quarter-final clash against Costa Rica at the 2021 Gold Cup on Sunday, as they got set to face off against one of the giants of CONCACAF in a big game.
Despite that, though, they came out and played one of their best games in recent memory, beating Costa Rica 2-0 in what proved to be a very complete and convincing performance from Les Rouges.
Thanks to goals from Junior Hoilett and Stephen Eustaquio, and a big clean sheet from Maxime Crepeau in goal, Canada did what they needed to do in order to overcome one of this region’s giants, surmounting a frontier they haven’t often gotten over in recent years.
“It’s step by step,” Canadian head coach John Herdman said after the game. “That’s the key message. We’ve been focusing on one game at a time.”
Now, thanks to that, they’ve advanced to the semi-finals of their region’s biggest major men’s continental tournament for the first time in over 14 years, where they’ll face off against the competition’s current defending champions, Mexico, for a spot in the final.
As they look to return to the Gold Cup final for the first time since 2000, a very stiff test awaits them in Mexico, who are the pride of North America, but for a Canadian team that hasn’t made it that far in so long, they’ll have full belief that they can make something happen in that game.
“We just have to keep our feet on the ground,” Herdman cautioned. “We take it one game by time, and get ready for the next part of the tournament, which is a semi-final.”
But before they look ahead to that match quite yet, it’s important that they build off of what they showed against Costa Rica, where they found a level not often seen from this Canadian team in recent years.
So with that in mind, here is some of what stood out from this Costa Rican game, one that is going to be remembered in Canadian Soccer circles for a while.
Hoilett’s promising audition:
And to start the game, Canada actually came out quite strong, taking the game right to Costa Rica, much to the surprise of onlookers.
Despite the grandeur of the occasion, playing one of the best teams in CONCACAF, Canada didn’t shrink in front of the many eyeballs that were on them on Sunday.
But that’s not the first time they’ve written that script. It has also been a quintessential Canadian experience to head into big games, surpass expectations for much of the game, before giving up a heartbreaking opening goal to kill their momentum.
So for Canada, their big moment then came in the 18th minute, as Stephen Eustaquio played a fantastic through ball, finding Junior Hoilett in behind the Costa Rican defensive line. From there, Canada’s veteran attacker made no mistake with his opportunity, lobbing Costa Rica’s Esteban Alvarado to give Canada a lead.
It was a massive goal, one that changed the game, as it seemed to give Canada a big boost heading into the rest of the match.
And in a sense, it was nice to see Hoilett score that goal, because if there was a guy who needed a goal on this Canadian team, it might have been Canada’s 31-year-old winger.
Currently out of contract, having been let go from his last club, Cardiff, he is currently auditioning for a new team once this tournament is over.
So to see him add his 2nd of the tournament to go along with the 2 assists he also has is a big plus, as you can only help that it raises his value in the eye of any potential suitors.
Ahead of World Cup qualifiers in the fall, Canada will need him to be playing regularly, as he’s a big part of this squad, and they’ll hope that his strong play did enough to convince some new teams to woo him to help give him that opportunity.
The Eustaquio show is back:
But while Hoilett’s goal was very well-taken from the attacker’s perspective, it’s important to note that without the assister, Eustaquio, that goal doesn’t happen.
And boy, what a game it was from Eustaquio.
Making his return to the Canadian lineup after missing their last game of the group stages against the US with a suspension, he announced himself in a big way upon his return to the lineup on Sunday, making his presence felt right from the first minute.
And it wasn’t just the assist, either. He was efficient with his passing, created a few other chances for his teammates, but was also his usual responsible self defensively, breaking up several Costa Rican attacks in transition.
So seeing that, it was nice to then see Eustaquio pick up Canada’s insurance marker in the 68th minute, all but confirming the result for Canada. After a low cross deflected off of a Costa Rican defender, Eustaquio would be first to react to the ball, slotting home past Alvarado to put the finishing touches on an outstanding performance.
Heading into the game, Canada was expected to win the midfield battle, no doubt, but at the same time, Eustaquio playing at the level that he did was not factored into that, as Costa Rica had no answer for the 24-year-old.
It comes at no better time for Eustaquio, either, as he’s coming off of a strong season in Portugal, one where he played a big role in Pacos De Ferreira’s surprise push-up the Portuguese Liga table, helping them finish 5th.
Because of that, he brought all sorts of eyeballs on him from all sorts of corners, with clubs such as Napoli, Braga and Porto all reportedly being interested in the Canadian, making a move inevitable this summer.
But with his current form, however, his list of suitors will grow even bigger, maybe even creating a bidding war for his services, making Pacos very happy.
Based on how he’s played, though, it’s very deserved, and Canada won’t complain either way, as there’s no doubt that he’s going to be a centrepiece of this team’s midfield for a long time to come.
“You can see it when he plays,” Herdman said. “The intensity, his desire, the passion, he embodies everything that we want this football country to be moving forward. He’s not just a fighter, but he’s got that quality, as well.”
A professional finish:
But while it was nice to see Canada score 2 goals to go up 2-0, that’s not the first time we’ve seen them do that in a quarter-final under Herdman.
As some might recall, Canada famously went up 2-0 in the last time that they were in the quarter-final of this tournament, which was in 2019 when they played Haiti, before throwing away that lead and losing 3-2 despite coming up against heavy underdogs in Haiti.
So considering that, to see Canada go up 2-0 against a Costa Rican side that was favourites to win made one wonder if we’d see a repeat of that 2019 game, especially as Costa Rica started to turn up the pressure.
But despite that history, Canada held strong, and did what they needed to do in order to lock down the game. Not only did they keep Costa Rica off the scoresheet, but they also kept them away from their goal, defending as their lives depended on it, avoiding giving up the sort of sloppy mistakes that might be all too familiar to some fans.
It was overall a very clinical and ruthless performance, one that we haven’t often seen from Canada, as they showed the sort of edge that you need to do well in these competitive settings.
Ahead of the semi-finals of this tournament, as well as World Cup qualifiers in the fall, it was nice to see, and is a sign of what’s to come from this Canadian team.
“I’m glad,” Mark Anthony Kaye said of the performance. “Everyone came out onto the field and committed to the game plan and committed to each other and play so well.”
Otherwise, it was an interesting game tactically from Canada, as they stuck with the 3-5-2 that had worked well for them up to that point, feeling like they had no reason to change a good formula.
And based on what we saw from them, they proved to be right in their assessment, as they were definitely the better team on the course of the night, completely outplaying their opponents.
Offensively, they were everywhere in the final third, overwhelming the Costa Rican defenders with their constant movement and overlaps.
From their wing backs, Tajon Buchanan and Richie Laryea, who got forward at every opportunity, to their midfield trio of Jonathan Osorio, Kaye and Eustaquio, who controlled the tempo of the game, along with forwards Lucas Cavallin and Hoilett, who made good runs, it was an overall very synchronized game from Les Rouges.
Along with some calm play in possession from Maxime Crepeau and the back 3 of Kamal Miller, Steven Vitoria and Alistair Johnston, Canada was in sync tactically offensively for most of the night, putting together some really solid phases of passing play.
To be fair, they also played quite well offensively in their loss against the US, but they lacked any sort of penetration into the final third, something they rectified against Costa Rica, showing what they’re capable of.
Defensively, though, was where they took the biggest step up tactically, as they put up a very efficient performance at the back.
Against a Costa Rican side with all sorts of offensive weapons, to see them only muster up 4 shots, just 0 of them on target, is a testament to how good Canada was defensively on Sunday, showing what they’re capable of in that area.
For a Canadian team that has had all sorts of questions asked about their ability to defend these past few years, it’s worth noting that in 10 competitive matches this year, they’ve now only just 4 goals, and never more than 1 in a game, showing that they’re a lot better defensive than people might realize.
Obviously, a stiff test awaits them now in Mexico, one that will really tell how good this Canadian defence is, but even despite that, they’ve played some pretty good teams over that 10 game span, including the US, Haiti (x3), Suriname and now Costa Rica, showing that there are certainly merits to this Canadian team being pretty darn good defensively.
“You’ve got to pick your moments coming up against a team like Mexico,” Herdman said. “The next test is probably the toughest test of the tournament, the platform will be tested, the back 5 will be tested, it will be a tough night for the guys, but that’s what we want.”
Returning to the tactics, though, it has overall been a very good tournament from Canada in this department, as they’ve really taken a step forward in how organized they’ve been, and it’s played a big role in their rise as of late.
“We’ve shifted our systems, we’ve become more adaptable,” Herdman explained. “Tonight we shifted our system again, so there’s good tactical flexibility there.”
In the Mixer:
Elsewhere, here are some other bits and bobs that have stood out to us from the game.
-Stephen Eustaquio, player of the tournament, anyone? With 3 goals and 1 assist in 3 games from the #6 position, along with his strong defensive play, it’s hard to find reasons why he couldn’t be considered for that nod right now.
-Shout out to Maxime Crepeau for his 2nd clean sheet for Canada this year, as he’s quietly been one of Canada’s players of the tournament so far, but hasn’t had these sorts of accolades to show for it, having conceded 1 goal in each of their first 3 games this tournament. Despite that, though, he saved Canada’s bacon on several occasions, as well as in this game against Costa Rica, making this clean sheet a deserved one.
-Otherwise, it’s worth noting that with their yellow cards in this game, Lucas Cavallini and Steven Vitoria are suspended for Canada’s clash with Mexico on Thursday, leaving Canada with just 19 players in their current squad.
-Because of that, might they consider recalling Cristian Gutierrez into their camp, as he is on their Gold Cup roster, but has remained with Whitecaps awaiting a call if necessary? With their squad stretched so thin, one can only wonder if Canada brings him in the next few days, putting him in contention for the Mexico game.
-Interesting to note that the last time Canada made it this far in the Gold Cup, all the way back in 2007, the only player that saw the field on Sunday who had even made his professional debut at that point was Steven Vitoria, and Eustaquio was just 11 years old. Just gives an idea of how long it’s been since they’ve made it this far.
So now, Canada will have a few days off before they play their biggest tournament match in over a decade, against one of the region’s giants, a game in which they’ll believe they have every chance of winning.
If you told someone that would happen to this Canadian team just a few weeks ago, they would’ve looked at you funny, but alas, off of the back of this big win over Costa Rica, Canada has every reason to believe they can make a bit of noise.
But considering how stretched their squad has been, and that they’re missing a good number of players that most would consider their regulars, this has already been a successful tournament, and they just have a chance to build off of that on Thursday.
Canada will be in tough against a Mexico team that seems to roll over everyone in CONCACAF, but if there’s a Canadian team that has a chance to do it, you’d have to imagine that this is the team to do so.
Because of that, they’ve got every reason to believe ahead of Thursday, where they’ll look to make history, continuing what has been a magical year for them so far.
“Every game is going to be another challenge,” Kaye said. “So you have to embrace it, you can’t shy away from it, I back my brothers here and I’m excited for Sunday.”
With the Octo coming up in the fall, too, it’s still just the start of what’s to come for them, so hopefully this game can be a catalyst for even bigger and better things.
“It takes time to build a team,” Herdman said. “We’ve built what we call our brotherhood, which is a connection, a shared purpose across every man, everyone is fighting for the same thing, which is to take this country to another level.”
Up Next: Canada vs Mexico, Thursday, July 29th, 2021, 19:00 PDT, 22:00 EDT (NRG Stadium, Houston)
Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer