Right before he had a career-defining moment, Maxime Crepeau was as calm as he could be.
Facing off against the giants of CONCACAF, Mexico, in the semi-finals of the 2021 Gold Cup, Crepeau’s Canada’s Men’s National Soccer Team was always going to be in tough in that game, especially against a team that has tortured this region for so long.
Having won the Gold Cup a record-high 8 times before, this game was supposed to be a mere formality for Mexico, who just wanted to take care of Canada before shifting their eyes to a battle with their true arch-nemesis of CONCACAF, the US, who were awaiting them in the final.
So as Mexico’s Carlos Salcedo stepped up to the penalty spot in the 65th-minute, with a chance to put his team up 2-1, Crepeau was well aware of what was at stake for his Mexican counterpart, as he had the pressure of a nation on his shoulders.
For Crepeau, who had stood up to his last 11 penalty kicks and saved none, including one earlier in the game from Salcedo’s teammate, Orbelin Pineda, he was just trying to do anything that he could to get a hand to the shot and give his team a fighting chance for the rest of the game.
And to everyone’s surprise, he did just that, diving to his right and palming away Salcedo’s lofted shot, keeping the game locked at 1-1, creating a moment that CanMNT fans won’t soon forget.
“It was good, and it was a crucial moment of the game, too,” Crepeau said of his penalty in an interview with BTSVancity last week. “They (could’ve) killed the game, because we were doing really well at that time of the game, so it was crucial. I don’t even think it was a PK, I haven’t watched the replay, but it’s a little touchy.”
“And then from there, it was literally (just) a 1v1. Nowadays, on PKs, you need to stand until the last second, so I really weighed to the side where the shooter’s going, because you can’t go early, if you’re off of your line, they retake it, so it’s split seconds, we really have to stand them up, and that’s what I did.”
So although Canada would then go on to lose the game 2-1 to a late 99th-minute goal from Hector Herrera, Crepeau’s save was a defining moment in a memorable game from Canada, one in which they showed that they can hang with a team like Mexico.
In a packed NRG Stadium down in Houston, one filled to the brim with 72 000 (mostly) pro-Mexican fans, this game was supposed to be a learning experience for Canada, one where they got a taste of what it takes to beat the best.
Obviously, the goal was to win the game, but more importantly, it was to also show that Canada belongs on the same field as Mexico, boosting confidence in the Canadian ranks ahead of the start of the Octagonal, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, which is set to begin this fall.
As they get set to compete with the likes of Mexico, the US, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama across a 14-game set, with 3.5 spots in the 2022 World Cup on the line, this tournament was all about preparation for those games, which start in the fall.
So for them to first beat Costa Rica in the quarter-finals of the tournament, their first such victory against them since the mid-2000s, and then compete with Mexico across 100 minutes in the semi-final, they certainly showed that they have what it takes to win in those sorts of games.
Along with their victory over the US from the fall of 2019, when they beat their southern neighbours in Nations League action, they’ve started to take strides towards being a top CONCACAF team as of late, with this tournament just being the latest example of that.
Because of that, Crepeau hopes that their other CONCACAF opponents are starting to take note of what they can do ahead of the fall, because it appears that the days of Canada being a doormat of the region are now over.
“I hope they’re watching us like that, I feel that in the past, they were not feeling like that,” Crepeau said when asked if he felt people are noticing Canada’s growth. “But with this team, the players, the depth chart that we have, I think we put pretty much everyone on notice that we can play against Mexico, we can play against the States.”
“Our objective was to close the gap, the bridge in between these two nations and ourselves, and then really be competitive in beating the Costa Ricas, beating the Jamaica’s, the Honduras’s and the El Salvador’s, (basically) making a gap and being in the top 3 of CONCACAF, because our goal is to be in the top 3 (at the end of the Octo) to then go to Qatar.”
And with the Octo in mind, this was an interesting tournament for Canada, who entered wanting to win, as any team does, but with those qualifiers starting in September, the main goal was to get through these games without any major injury or drama.
Already missing some key names heading in, such as stars Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, the 23-man roster brought to the US wanted to show that A) they have the depth to compete in the Octo, and B), they’ve got players that are ready to compete for starting minutes on that team right now.
Crepeau found himself in category B heading into this camp, having firmly entrenched himself as the #2 behind veteran goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who at 33, has shown no signs of slowing down as a strong contributor for his club, the Serbian giants, Red Star Belgrade, as well as for Canada.
But despite that, there have been some calls for Crepeau to take over the mantle from Borjan as #1 goalkeeper, as he’s quickly become one of the best players on his Vancouver Whitecaps team, at least giving him a claim to earn a chance with Canada.
So with Borjan out for this tournament as he looked to help Red Star through Champions League qualifiers, this was Crepeau’s chance, one which he looked to grab with both hands and run with.
And after a conversation with Canadian head coach, John Herdman, who shared to Crepeau that he was his guy for this tournament, he did just that, putting together some massive performances for Canada, including ones against Haiti, Costa Rica and Mexico that showed that he is a lot more ready for that #1 spot than anyone realized heading into this.
“We talked a little bit before the tournament,” Crepeau said of his conversation with Herdman. “I knew Milan wasn’t coming because of Champions League qualifiers with (Red Star) Belgrade, so I knew I had an opportunity during the window to play. Once we got to camp, the first 2 days we did the usual exercises, and then after that, we prepared for the first tournament against Martinique, and (for that) I was in.”
“He (Herdman) then literally told me: ‘yeah, you’re our guy for the tournament’, so it’s something I was looking forward to, and I appreciate that. He was really honest, it’s black or white, it’s straightforward, there’s no grey zone with him.”
Thanks to that, Crepeau did what he’d wanted to do for so long, get a chance to be the guy for his country, realizing a childhood dream of his in the process.
“It was good, it’s something that for a long time I’ve been working for,” he continued. “Milan has (been) there before, he took his chance when he first started playing, and I needed to do the same. I needed to help my country go through the group stages, and then get to the quarters, semis and then hopefully the final. We didn’t get to the final, but we watched the game – it was a good one, but honestly yeah, it was good, it was a lot of work, but I’m proud, because the objective you want when you’re a kid and start playing is to represent your country.
So now, because of that, it’s opened up the door in goal for Canada heading into the Octo, as the 27-year-old Crepeau looks ready to start games for Herdman’s side right now, giving Borjan as good of a push for minutes as he’s probably ever seen since becoming Canada’s #1 almost a decade ago.
Thanks to his calm demeanour in goal, and ability to play the sort of possession-based style that Canada wants to play, all of a sudden Crepeau is a candidate to start when Canada kicks off their Octo campaign on September 2nd at home to Honduras.
“It’s (coming) quick, in one month already we play,” Crepeau admitted. “September 2nd is the 1st game, we receive Honduras at home, and then we go to Nashville, play the US, and then we come back and play El Salvador, so we’re preparing for that.”
And speaking of which, in that first game, with his strong form as of late, might Crepeau be the guy leading Canada out of the tunnel, helping them kickstart the Octo?
At this rate, you wouldn’t rule it out, but for Crepeau, he’s just focused on helping his team win in any role, be it as the #1, #2 or #3, bringing his all to his country no matter what.
“We haven’t talked about games, minutes, who’s going to play, honestly, that’s not important to our organization,” he continued. “Like everyone is ready to step in, there’s a lot of games, there is 14 games, 5 windows, 3 games, plus the travel, in what?, 7 or 8 days (at a time), so for sure we’re going to rotate, I imagine, so when you have a chance (to play), you do it not for yourself, but for the country, and for everyone to believe that we can go to Qatar.”
And it’s that sort of team-first attitude that has set Canada up nicely for these World Cup qualifiers.
Thanks to that next-man-up mentality, they managed to get through the first 2 rounds of qualifiers with ease, navigating the tough waters of CONCACAF with the sort of calm and tranquillity not often seen from Canada.
From there, they showed incredible poise in this Gold Cup in many situations, no matter if the crowd was against them, as it was in most games, or if their opponents were heavy favourites, which was the case in a few games.
So heading into the Octo, where they’ve now got the prospect of having to play in tough away environments such as San Pedro Sula, Kingstontown or Panama City, they at least have that experience now, having played in front of some big crowds at the Gold Cup.
As Crepeau learned, it’s a different beast, but as he also showed, Canada is ready, and they’re looking forward to kicking off their long-awaited Octo quest in earnest this September, continuing their long and wavy journey to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup.
Nearing the halfway point of that journey, the going is about to get real tough now, but based on what we saw from them in their dress rehearsal this summer, they appear to be ready for what’s to come now.
“Yeah, we’re going to play, in qualifying, depending on the rules of the government, we’ll play away, and it’s going to be like this, a tough environment where everything is against you,” Crepeau said. “But when you’re on the field, you need to be clear on what you’re doing, and that’s what we can expect when we’re going to play away on the road for the next few games.”
Up Next: Canada vs Honduras, Thursday, September 2nd, 2021, 17:05 PDT, 20:05 EDT (BMO Field, Toronto)
Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/MexSport