Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team fell to Mexico 2-1 on Thursday night in the semi-finals of the 2021 Gold Cup. Here’s what stood out to us from that one.
After they did so well to instill belief, to see that ripped from them at the death was heart-wrenching.
For Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team, they were always going to be in tough against tournament favourites, Mexico, in the semi-finals of the 2021 Gold Cup on Thursday, so it’s not as if a 2-1 loss to the defending champions is a bad result, far from it.
At the same time, though, to lose the way that they did was tough, as Canada did so well to battle with the Mexican for 90 minutes, before a late, late goal from Hector Herrera sunk them right at the death.
After a dramatic first 70 minutes, which featured a Mexican penalty goal, a surprise Canadian answer, a second Mexican penalty, and then a penalty save, the game then seemed destined to head to extra time, giving fans 30 more minutes of drama, but instead, Mexico managed to show up right at the death to spoil those thoughts.
Thankfully for Canada, this is just the start of what’s to come for them as a team. Having qualified to the final round of World Cup qualifying, the Octagonal, for the first time since 1997, they were already playing with house money by even making it this far in this Gold Cup.
“Yeah, I’m proud of the lads,” Canadian head coach John Herdman said after the game. “We’re broken inside (the room) to be honest, that’s all we really wanted, to get to that final, it was a tough match, tough to take in the last minute, and we’re feeling it.”
Despite missing several regulars, just to get to the semi-finals of this tournament for the first time since 2007 was already a big plus, even if they didn’t complete their ultimate goal, which was to return to the final for the first time since 2000, the year in which they won their first and only Gold Cup (to go along with their 1 CONCACAF Championship).
While they’ll be disappointed they fell just short in that quest, bigger tests now loom in the Octo, as the Octagonal is also known, which kicks off in just over 5 weeks, kickstarting a journey that will see Canada play 14 games home-and-away games against the best in CONCACAF, all for a chance to compete in the 2022 World Cup.
In the midst of a huge year for Canadian soccer, this might’ve been a small step back in the short term, but in the long term, it proved that this Canadian team is ready to make some noise, and that the rest of their opponents have to take notice.
“Tonight, they left all their fears behind,” Herdman said. “They committed to each other, just kept it simple, with a clear game plan. They had a spirit, a fight for each other, people underestimate how hard that is to create in a team, but when it’s there, it’s special, and I think you’ve seen that.”
So with that in mind, here’s what stood out to us from this clash with Mexico, one in which they showed plenty of positive flashes despite the defeat, helping prove their credentials as a top CONCACAF team.
Tough penalty undoes good start:
And to start the game, Canada actually came out very strongly, responding to the stiff Mexican test.
Despite having to play in front of a pro-Mexican crowd consisting of just under 72 000 fans, Canada did not seem bothered by the scenario, sticking to their game plan right from the very beginning.
Through the first 45 minutes of the game, they defended tightly, closed down space between the lines, and showed flashes of quality when they got onto the ball, overall doing a good job of sticking to that game plan.
Usually, in these sorts of games, one would usually see Canada shrink in front of the occasion, playing with fear, putting numbers behind the balls and hoping for the best.
So to see them come out strongly, going toe-to-toe with Mexico was nice, especially considering that this Canadian team was so shorthanded, sitting with just 19 players in their matchday squad due to a mix of injury and suspension.
To start the game, Mexico was probably the slightly better team, but Canada wasn’t far behind them, returning every punch that their opponents gave them.
But then, disaster struck.
Having done so well to get to the end of the first half, you just wondered if Canada could make it to the dressing room with the 0-0 still intact, allowing them to hit the reset button ahead of the second half.
Alas, that was not meant to be, however, as Mexico went up 1-0 right at the 45th minute, thanks to a well-taken Orbelin Pineda penalty.
The most frustrating part, too?
That it was such a harmless penalty to give up, as Mexico’s Jesus Corona’s touch inside the box was much too heavy, but Canada’s Doneil Henry heavily mistimed his read on the play, clearing out Corona for an obvious penalty.
It was originally missed by the referee, Daneon Parchment, but VAR then intervened and told Parchment to have a second look, and from there he went back and made the correct call.
So for Canada, it left them to rue a mistake that gave Mexico a lead that didn’t feel deserved based on how Canada had played through the first 45 minutes.
“They were disappointed with giving up a penalty,” Herdman said. “But we knew the game plan was to stay in the game for a period of time.”
A good response:
But while Canada had every right to be frustrated with themselves heading into the dressing room down a goal, that’s just soccer sometimes, and despite being down 1-0 to a Mexican team that is known for closing out games, you just felt like they had some more in them.
Would it come out? Who knows, as there are generations of Canadian fans that can lament about this Canadian side wilting in the face of this kind of adversity, but one just wondered if that’d change in this game.
And then, to everyone’s surprise, the response actually did come.
Not only did Canada come out as strong as they did in the first half, but they also came out arguably even stronger, taking the game right to Mexico.
To start the half, they were much the better team, and were actually dictating play against the CONCACAF giants, showing that they belong.
“We knew the game plan was to stay in the game for a period of time,” Herdman explained. “We had moments when we wanted to press and get on the front foot.”
Down 1 goal, in front of that pro-Mexican crowd, it was a great bounce-back, one that people weren’t used to seeing from Canada.
But as the half started to wear on, the question started to come out – would they turn this excellent bit of play into a goal?
The answer would be yes, thanks to one bit of magic in the 57th minute.
After a phenomenal long ball from Mark Anthony Kaye, Tajon Buchanan found himself unleashed down the left-hand side, where he was isolated up against Mexico’s Carlos Salcedo in a 1v1.
Despite being pushed a bit wider than he probably would’ve liked, he initiated a dizzying spin of stepovers, before cutting inside and delivering a lovely low strike, one that slid through Salcedo’s legs and into the bottom corner from a tight angle, giving Canada their opener.
And what a goal it was for Canada.
To equalize the game after having gone down against Mexico was huge, as not only did they deserve the equalizer, but knocked down the door to go get it, showing something that people aren’t used to seeing from this Canadian team.
Plus, returning to Buchanan, it’s worth noting that with that tally, it was also his first goal for his country at the senior level, and boy did it ever come at a good time for his team.
After a strong tournament from him, it was a deserved reward, and one that Canada was happy to reap the benefits of, giving them the belief that they could chase a win.
With all sorts of suitors from some of the biggest European clubs all interested in his services, it was another big moment from him, but one that Canadian fans are starting to get used to seeing from him.
“They couldn’t handle him on the flanks,” Herdman said of Buchanan. “Hopefully he can now get into the Bundesliga or the Premier League where this kid is destined to go, where he can build that quality.”
Maxime Crepeau comes up huge again:
But then, disaster struck once again in the 67th minute.
Corona continued to be a thorn in the side of Canadians, as he again weaved his way into the box, getting tangled with Canada’s Mark Anthony Kaye, going down with the contact.
It was originally blown down as a free-kick, but VAR once again intervened, and Parchment decided to call a penalty upon his rewatch, giving Mexico their second spot of the game, with a chance to go up 2-1.
This time, however, defender Carlos Salcedo stepped up to the spot instead of Pineda, as Mexico elected to change things up.
That would backfire, though, as Canada’s Maxime Crepeau then stepped up big time in goal for his team, making a massive save on the spot-kick, keeping his team in the game.
For Crepeau, it was another huge save in a long line of them for him at this tournament, as he’s continued to step up big for his country in his first real audition as a starter for Canada, filling in as usual starter Milan Borjan helps his clubs through UEFA Champions League qualifiers.
Because of that, the question now has to be asked – did Crepeau do enough to earn more minutes as a starter going forward?
And the answer to that is absolutely, wholeheartedly, yes, as he was phenomenal all tournament, and that was the case once again on Thursday.
Although Borjan might be playing at a better level, and is more experienced, Crepeau’s proven to be a fantastic shot-stopper, and his ability with the ball at his feet has proven to be a big bonus.
That’s not to say that Borjan needs to be written off quite yet, as he still has a lot to give to this Canadian team, but Crepeau is at least ready to fill in for games here and there, if not start the big ones outright, and this tournament was just more evidence of that.
But for all the big stops that Crepeau made, including a late one on Rodolfo Pizarro in the 92nd-minute that seemed destined to push his team to extra time, he couldn’t save them all, unfortunately.
All the way in the 97th-minute, Mexico just found a bit of life down that left-hand side, from where Pizarro whipped in a nice low cross right through the box.
From there, the ball popped right up to Hector Herrera, and the Atletico Madrid man made no mistake with his chance, slamming home the ball into the corner with his left foot to give Mexico the late victory.
And while one could only imagine if this late punch was coming, as Mexico has a knack for popping up with late goals at moments like this, with how well Canada was playing, it certainly felt like they’d manage to hold on right to the bitter end.
But that’s what makes Mexico so good. Having been outplayed for much of the half, they found a way to turn their pressure up a notch, putting the pressure on their opponents right as they started to get tired, and it paid off in a big way for them.
Unfortunately, against a team like Mexico, no matter how well you play, you have to manage the big moments, and Canada got a taste of that on Thursday.
Otherwise, it’s interesting to note that once again Canada had a pretty good performance tactically, as they once again showed their growth in that area this year.
Throughout this tournament, Canada has proven to be surprisingly organized at both ends of the field, finding a way to strike a balance between strong defending, but not at the cost of strong attacking.
To start the game, they stuck with their familiar 3-5-2, and looked pretty good in it, mostly keeping Mexico out of dangerous areas in the final third, while getting the occasional burst forward.
Defensively, they kept good spacing between their lines, and avoided sitting too deep or playing too high, striking a good balance. Because of that, Mexico’s Rogelio Funes Mori hardly got a touch up top, making for a frustrating first half for him.
Canada was a bit limited offensively at times, as they lacked numbers going forward, and didn’t get wing backs Buchanan and Richie Laryea as involved down the flanks, but there were good flashes, making hope that one of them could eventually start a fire.
But then, once Mexico went up, they then surprisingly switched to a sort of 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 at the half, to positive results.
“We decided to go to a 4-4-2 at half,” Crepeau explained. “And we really had a go at them, because we knew we’d have a chance.”
By playing Tajon Buchanan out wide, it allowed him to get much more involved in his team’s offence, and they profited from it, as he had a few good bursts, which eventually led to the goal.
Along with the presence of fellow second-half substitute Theo Corbeanu on the right flank, it gave Canada excellent width, which finally allowed them to exploit the acres of space left behind the Mexican full backs, helping them look much more dangerous.
While also maintaining their superiority in midfield, as Stephen Eustaquio, Mark Anthony Kaye and Jonathan Osorio were still allowed to play as a sort of midfield trio despite Osorio being pushed further forward, Canada found the recipe needed to break down Mexico.
So overall, other than the late goal, it was a pretty good game from Canada in open play, as they not only competed with Mexico, but put together some pretty dominant patches of play, which was a welcome surprise.
“Basically we had 2 systems,” Crepeau explained. “Playing in the first half we switched from one system to another and it worked, the opponent didn’t really know how to adjust or switch tactically.”
That’s reflected in the stats, as Canada managed to hold Mexico to 14 shots, 7 of them on target, but it’s worth noting that 2 of those came via 2 of the penalties, which isn’t that bad at all.
Along with 9 shots of their own, 3 of them on target, all despite just holding 39% of possession, Canada came to play, instead of just hanging on, which was nice to see.
In The Mixer:
Lastly, here are some bits and bobs that stood out from this one.
- It’s worth noting that with this result, that was just the first time in a game this year that Canada conceded more than 1 goal, and it took a penalty against the best team in CONCACAF and a late, late goal to bust that slump. For a team that has had all sorts of questions asked about their defence, that’s been nice to see.
- With that penalty save, Maxime Crepeau snapped an 11 penalty streak where he hadn’t made a save. Long overdue for him.
- Shout out to Theo Corbeanu, who at just 19, came on in a tough environment, and was up for the performance. He seems like he’s on the cusp of a breakout soon.
- Credit to a big shift up front from Tesho Akindele. Only added to the roster last-minute, he was thrown up front in a pinch to fill in for a suspended Lucas Cavallini, and had a pretty good game all things considered. Good to know that Canada has this sort of depth well down their list of strikers.
- If teams in Europe aren’t looking at Crepeau, Kamal Miller, Alistair Johnston, Richie Laryea and Mark Anthony Kaye after this tournament, they aren’t doing their jobs properly.
- Someone sign Junior Hoilett, please. He was fantastic throughout the 90 minutes.
So now, Canada will look to lick their wounds for the next few days, before turning their attention to the bigger fish that awaits them, and that’s World Cup qualifiers.
After a busy 2 months of action in June and July, they’ve got a month off before they’ll reconvene for those games, the first of which they’ll play at home against Honduras on September 2nd.
And heading into those games, Canada has every right to believe that not only can they compete, but win a good chunk of them, allowing them to return to the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
As seen at this tournament, they arguably have a claim of being the 3rd-best team in CONCACAF, and considering that the top 3 teams in the Octo head to the World Cup, that’s good news for Canada.
“Against a team like this in the past, it’s a blowout,” Laryea said after the game. “We showed that we can go up against anyone tonight.”
They’ve still got a long way towards being able to topple the giants of CONCACAF on a consistent basis, but as they showed in this tournament, they won’t back down to any challenge, showing that they’re ready to compete with anyone in this region on their day.
“It’s what we wanted to show tonight,” Herdman said. “We’re more than that grit and resilience, we can play, and we can go toe-to-toe with the best and conquer. Some of those men came of age tonight, and some of those men gave everything they could for the red shirt.”
Up Next: Canada vs Honduras, Thursday, September 2nd, 2021, Time TBD (Venue TBD, Canada)
Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/MexSport