On Thursday night, all eyeballs will be on Canadian Soccer, as both Canada Soccer’s Men’s and Women’s National Team’s will get set to play a pair of big games over a span of just under 12 hours. Here’s why that’s so important for the sport in this country.
It’s so nice, they’re going to do it twice.
For a span of just under 12 hours on Thursday night and into Friday morning, Canadian Soccer will be the talk of the country, as both their Men’s and the Women’s National Teams have a chance to make history.
On the men’s side, they’re getting set to take on Mexico in the semi-finals of the 2021 CONCACAF GOLD Cup, as they look to get back to the final of that tournament for the first time since 2000.
As they look to win their 2nd-ever Gold Cup, and 3rd ever CONCACAF Men’s Championship, they’ll have to overcome a Mexican side that has dominated this region historically, entering this tournament as defending champions.
Over on the women’s side, they’re preparing to take on Brazil in the quarter-finals of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as they look to return to the semi-finals of that tournament for the 3rd edition in a row.
On the hunt to pick up a medal for their 3rd Olympic tournament in a row, having won back-to-back bronze medals in 2012 and 2016, Canada will be in tough against a Brazilian side that has caused them all sorts of problems in recent years, winless in 4 meetings against their South American foes (0W-2L-2D).
So on both fronts, 2 stiff tests await Canada, but at the same time, they’ll be quite confident in their chances of progressing through.
In the midst of a strong year for both programs, one where each team has taken a big step forward compared to where they were at heading into it, if there are ever 2 Canadian teams that can take care of business, we might just be staring them in the eye.
And that’s huge for this country, one that certainly feels on the edge of a big breakthrough soccer-wise in terms of support, as this night could be that catalyst to make that happen.
With that in mind, here’s what’s at stake for both sides on Thursday, as they look to make it a night to remember for Canadian fans, for all of the right reasons.
Canada vs Mexico – a chance to return to the region’s elite:
And to kick off the evening, a very stiff test awaits Canada’s Men’s National Team in Mexico, a team they’re looking to beat for the first time since 2000, when they famously beat El Tri 2-1 en route to eventually winning that year’s Gold Cup.
Since then, though, this matchup has been all Mexico, as they’ve had the Canadians number in all of their rematches since, sitting undefeated in the last 9 meetings between the 2 teams (6W-0L-3D).
So for Canada, when it’s said they’ve got quite the mountain to overcome in this game, it’s no exaggeration.
“It’s a great opportunity for this group of players to experience a Concacaf Gold Cup Semifinal against the tournament favourites Mexico,” Canadian head coach John Herdman told Canada Soccer. “They’ve earned this opportunity and they’ll both enjoy and embrace the test.”
But at the same time, that can be a blessing in disguise for Herdman’s team.
At this point, they’re arguably playing with house money by having reached this stage of the tournament, especially considering they did so without several of their regulars, including stars Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, who had to miss out due to injury.
Despite absences such as those, among others, they’ve adopted a ‘next man-up’ philosophy every game they play, finding a way to plug through every time they’ve lost a player.
So heading into a game where they’re so shorthanded that they’ll only be able to dress 19 out of a possible 23 players due to injury and suspension on Thursday, that attitude will hopefully be on full display once again on Thursday, showing what this team is made of.
In the midst of a year where they’ve already set out the main task they set out to accomplish, which was to make the final round of World Cup qualifiers, also known as the ‘Octagonal’, for the first time since 1997, something they did last month, anything accomplished at this tournament would feel like a cherry on top of the cake.
With an onus on making the 2022 World Cup at any cost, the Octo will be special, as it’ll allow a nation to dream once again, allowing fans to one day return to a frontier that has just been breached once in the history of this men’s program.
But at the same time, it’s not as if that impending task of making the World Cup, a journey that begins in the fall, renders the Gold Cup into a soulless thought, either.
Dreams can also be built off of the back of winning a major trophy, as Canada learned when they won the Gold Cup in 2000, so they need to prepare for their clash with Mexico with the same approach that helped them bust their World Cup qualifying slump.
So although Mexico might be Canada’s biggest test to date, if there’s a Canadian team that might be able to overcome this El Tri side that has won a record-high 8 Gold Cups (and 11 total CONCACAF Championships), it certainly feels like this team is the one to do it.
Having already smashed through several walls that seemed impossible just years ago, such as making that final round of qualifiers or handily beating Costa Rica in the quarter-finals of this tournament, this Canadian team has talent, yes, but more importantly they’ve got spirit, togetherness and a belief that they can get the job done against any team when it’s game time.
“Yeah, the team is motivated,” Canada’s Junior Hoilett said. “Last time around (vs Mexico), it was a tough defeat, but we’ve got a stronger squad now, a more relentless group here, and we’re all motivated. It’s a final game to get us into the final, so everybody is on board and knows their role, and we’re looking forward to it.”
Canada vs Brazil – a chance to recreate more memories:
But while Canada’s Men’s National Team will be looking to return to heights not touched for a long time, their Women’s National Team is looking to return to a place they’ve become quite familiar with this past decade, and that’s the semi-finals of the Olympics.
Having done so in both 2012 and 2016, they’re well aware of how difficult it is just to make it that far, but they’re also confident that they’ve got the team to make it happen once again.
They might’ve gotten through the group stages with a little less oomph than they would’ve liked, finishing 2nd in Group E behind Great Britain with 5 points to their opponents 7, but they’ve remained undefeated at these Olympics despite that, sitting with 1 win and 2 draws.
In what was arguably the evenest group in the tournament, they did what they needed to do in order to progress, and that’s all you can ever ask for at these sorts of competitions.
“We are undefeated in three games and we’ve put ourselves in control of our own destiny,” goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe told Canada Soccer. “We know what our ultimate goal is, and we’re on our way to that.”
So now, they’ll look to find a bit of magic ahead of their clash against Brazil, returning to the level they showed earlier in the year.
Having entered this year with so much uncertainty, having hired a new head coach just last fall, it was unsure if this would be a transition year or not for Canada, making it hard to project where they’d be at for these games.
Thanks to the work of that new coach Bev Priestman, however, thoughts of a transition year were quickly erased, as it was quite apparent from the get-go that this Canadian team would be able to compete at Tokyo.
Plus, she’s gotten them back up to that level while slowly transitioning into a new group of players, accelerating a process that Canada’s old coach, Kenneth Heiner-Moller, had started but had only really begun to do on a very gradual basis.
“To go undefeated in the group stage is nothing to scoff at. Across the group stage, we’ve had eight debuts at the Olympics. I felt today was a much better Canadian performance getting us ready now for some great tier-one opponents,” Priestman told Canada Soccer this week.
“Everyone who stepped in did an unbelievable job, and the strength of this group will be the depth, they can step in whenever needed so no matter what happens moving forward, we’re all ready to go.”
Now, thanks to that, even if things don’t go to plan this summer, it feels like Canada’s also starting to set themselves up for the 2023 World Cup at the same time, removing a bit of the ‘last dance’ feel that this tournament would’ve had if it was held in 2020, as originally planned.
But at the same time, it’s much too early to have that sort of conversation.
This team is here to not only get a medal, but change the colour of it after having earned those back-to-back bronzes, so although they’ll be in tough against Brazil, they’re well aware of what’s at stake and how to beat them.
In a country that loves to rally around those who compete at the 5-rings, they’ve got the chance to capture a nation’s attention once more, helping make more memories to go along with those they’ve already made in past tournaments.
There’s a reason why there are kids all over the country that grew up screaming ‘Matheson’ whenever they scored a late winner in their heads, and that’s because this team knows how to capture one’s imagination in big moments.
Led by a generational goalscorer, Christine Sinclair, who’s continued her assault on the global record books this tournament despite being 38-years-old, along with a supporting cast led by star-level players such as Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan and Janine Beckie, this Canada team has the players, the experience, and now, thanks to Priestman’s guidance, they’ve appeared to get a bit of fire back.
So although the group stage may have brought a few causes of concern, this team has all of the pieces they need in order to make a deep run, and the quest towards doing that starts now.
But ultimately, across both teams, one common theme emerges – use this night to make fans dream again.
It’s not often that we’ve seen Canadian teams have success at major tournaments, yet over the course of a 12-hour span, we’ll get to see 2 very good sides not only chase success in big environments, but be expected to compete in those games.
Thanks to that, it’ll put eyeballs in this country on soccer, which will be fantastic for the sport, as these sorts of big opportunities have been far and few between.
For young kids around the country, they’ll have a chance to see heroes go out and represent their country at the highest stage, allowing them to dream of one day doing the same too.
Plus, if both teams win, 2 even bigger games wait on Sunday, as Canada’s Men would play in the Gold Cup final on Sunday night, shortly before Canada’s Women would play on Monday morning in the Olympic semi-finals, so could just be the start of what’s to come.
But even if one or both teams fall short, make no mistake, this is just the start of their respective journeys as teams.
And for a nation that has a deep attachment to the sport, that’s a good thing, as setting up a big decade for soccer in Canada, with Thursday night just being the first step of that process.
CanMNT vs Mexico, Thursday, July 29th, 2021, 19:00 PDT, 22:00 EDT (NRG Stadium, Houston)
CanWNT vs Brazil, Friday, July 30th, 2021, 1:00 AM PDT, 4:00 AM EDT (Miyagi Stadium, Rifu)
Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Daniela Porcelli