“It was a holy s— moment”: The CanMNT learns harsh lesson in 1-1 draw vs Honduras to open final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team opened the final round of CONCACAF’s final round of World Cup qualifying, the ‘Octagonal’, with a 1-1 draw versus Honduras on Thursday. Here’s what stood out to us from that one. 

Heading into this game, optimism was high, and for good reason. 

With arguably the strongest team in their history in tow, Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team headed into their opening game of the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers, the ‘Octagonal’, with high hopes. 

Facing off against a solid Honduras team, they were confident that they had what it’d take to kick off this Octo on a strong note, giving the close to 15 000 strong that were supporting them at BMO Field in Toronto something to cheer about. 

In their first home game back in Canada in nearly 2 years, everything was set up for them to mark their homecoming with a memorable victory for the passionate home supporters.

“It was unbelievable,” Canadian defender, Alistair Johnston, said of the atmosphere after the game. “In that whole 2nd half you could feel it, and that’s one of the biggest perks of playing at home.”

Instead, though, they learned a harsh lesson of CONCACAF, as Honduras scrapped and fought their way to a huge 1-1 away draw, one that Canada might come to regret in a few months. 

In an Octo stage where the importance of winning your home games was heavily emphasized by many of those directly involved, it’s a tough blow for Canada, who came out flat in this game, and had to play catch-up the rest of the way en route to a draw. 

“Look, it’s a game where you’ve got to take 3 points at home,” Canada’s head coach, John Herdman, said after the game. “We’ll take a point after our performance, it was definitely a game of 2 halves.”

Against a Honduras side that had clearly been in this kind of game many times before, Canada failed to respond to the occasion, seeming overwhelmed by the stakes of this game, allowing their opponents to control more of this match than they would’ve liked.

The good news for Canada? It’s still very early on in the Octo, and they’ve got plenty of time to pick up results down the road. The bad news? They’ve now got to buckle up and find a win on the road, which given how strong most teams are at home in CONCACAF, is no small task. 

But with the sort of talent that they’ve got in the fold, you wouldn’t put it past them doing that quite yet. They’ll have to be much better than they were on Thursday, but having gotten a taste of what the Octo is going to be like, one can only hope that they respond in their next game, a road game versus the US on Sunday, with a bit of gusto now. 

If they’re to do that, though, it’s important that they avoid making the same mistakes that they made versus Honduras on Thursday, as some key factors bogged them down. 

So with that in mind, here’s what stood out to us in particular from Thursday, as Canada got a big taste of what the next few months are going to be like in the Octo, all part of a tough night for them in Toronto. 

A slow start for Canada:

But while things didn’t end how they’d have liked them to, right from kick-off, you couldn’t deny it – it was a special atmosphere for Canada on Thursday.

From the boisterous reception from the fans as soon as they walked out of the tunnel, to the consistent chanting of the Voyageurs, Canada’s supporters brought it right from the first minute, marking a memorable homecoming for their team. 

Unfortunately for Canada, though, they’d be unable to conjure up that same energy, coming out with a nervous start. Be it the grandeur of the game, or the roar of their home crowd, they seemed overexcited to start the game, making many routine mistakes that we haven’t seen from this Canadian side in a while. 

From missed passes, to sloppy shots, and just some poor decisions, Canada looked a step behind for most of the first half, allowing Honduras to grow into the game. 

“They’re very good at attacking in transition,” Herdman said. “The minute you lose the ball, they just swarm you, I thought we weathered that storm well to start, but (what killed us) was just in the middle of that half, we just got too static, the tempo was slow.”

As a result, it would be not surprising to see Honduras open the scoring right 5 minutes before halftime, as it was just a confirmation of what was being shown on the pitch at BMO Field all half. Long before the goal, Honduras was getting the better of the chances, including a few on some early set pieces that gave trouble to Milan Borjan in the Canadian goal. 

But despite that, Honduras wasn’t threatening Canada’s goal enough. Until the 40th minute, that is. 

After a nice bit of play from his midfield, Honduras’s Andy Najar found a bit of space in the Canadian box, and Canada’s Tajon Buchanan would find himself on the wrong side of the opposing right back, stick out a clumsy foot to try and stop Najar. He’d succeed in stopping Najar, but would do so illegally, chopping him down for a clear-cut penalty, one that the referee would have no hesitation in pointing to the spot for. 

From there, Honduras’s Alexander Lopez would have no hesitation in stepping up and converting the spot-kick, sending it right into the low left corner to give his team the lead, much to the dismay of those in attendance at BMO. 

It might not have been the prettiest goal, but it was everything that Honduras needed, as they punished Canada for their slow start, leaving them to chase the game heading into the 2nd half. 

“Entering the 2nd half, it was like a holy sh– moment,” Herdman said, not mincing words. “Like wow, this is real. I think the fantasy was that we were going to gout there and it was going to be a tiki-taka evening, and we were going to score 15 goals by half time, but the reality was, that Honduras team are well-organized.”

Finding a response:

Down a goal, it then left Canada in an interesting position. 

Against a side that was already starting to slow down the game before they even reached halftime, it wasn’t going to be easy to find an equalizer, much less a winner, and to do so, they’d have to react quickly. 

But to give credit to Canada, they kept on fighting. At halftime, Herdman brought on Junior Hoilett for Buchanan, who’d appeared to be labouring from a knock in the first half, and Canada found some life with the change. 

With Hoilett popping up into some dangerous pockets in and around the box, it then unlocked Alphonso Davies and Richie Laryea down the flanks, as they started to cause all sorts of chaos in those wide areas. 

So naturally, it’d be no surprise that a Canadian equalizer would have Davies, Laryea’s and Hoilett’s fingerprints all over it. 

After a nice ball to Laryea out wide in the 63rd minute, he drove at Honduras’s defence centrally before shifting the ball out to Davies. With the ball in a good area, the Bayern Munich man then whipped in a lovely ball at the back post, one that Hoilett brought down nicely, forcing a Honduras defender to foul him, giving the referee no choice but to once again point to the spot. 

From there, Cyle Larin stepped up the spot and buried the ball with confidence, tying the game for Canada. With his 8th goal in World Cup qualifiers, it put him back tied atop the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying goalscoring charts with El Salvador’s David Rugamas, and for Canada, it couldn’t have come at a better time for them. 

With 25 minutes still remaining in the game, it all of a sudden felt like Canada had a chance to snatch all 3 points out of this one, giving them a memorable victory to remember to kick off the start of this long journey. 

“I think in that second half, we just made some little technical adjustments,” Herdman explained. “We tried to roll them out into pockets of spaces where we could just feel the ball a bit, (because) I felt the tempo was a bit slow (before).”

Larin slots come the penalty for Canada vs Honduras (Ben Steiner)

Final push yields nothing:

But despite a late push that saw them throw everything and the kitchen sink at Honduras, Canada would be unable to knock their door completely down. 

There were some really close calls, including a few Larin headers that nearly found the back of the net, and a late Richie Laryea volley from right inside the box that he probably wants back, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be for Canada. 

It was a valiant effort from Canada, but they unfortunately paid the consequences for their slow start to this one, as they dug a hole that was too deep to get out of in time. 

And that might be the biggest lesson that they might’ve learned from tonight. So far this year, they’ve arguably played worse overall games and come out with a win, but in this game, against a quality opponent, you need to play well for 90, not for 45. 

“On another night, that’s maybe 2 or 3 goals (for us),” Herdman lamented. “And all the fans would be heading home with 3 points in the bag and happy.”

“We knew that we didn’t play our best football (in that first half),” Johnston added. “We knew that. It can only be up from that.”

So although it was a good response from Canada, they need to make sure that they don’t make these slow starts a habit, because all of these teams in this Octo know how to hold onto points when they get in a position to do so. 

Especially heading into some tough road games, where they’ll need to steal a point or 3, they cannot afford to have any more slow starts, as things can get a lot worst in those games, ones where strong home support can drown a team that fails to get their head above water from the get-go. 

In this Octo, wins often instead go to those who swim right from the first whistle, and Canada saw that first-hand tonight, and they’ll look to take that lesson into their upcoming games. 

“It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” Canadian defender, Steven Vitoria, said after the game. “We have to go with the flow, things aren’t always going to work out the way you planned, but you have to go on.”

Alistair Johnston’s big night:

Otherwise, it’s important to shout out Johnston’s play at the back in this game, as he was without a doubt Canada’s player of the match in this one. 

From his 4 tackles, including one bone-crunching one in the 2nd half that got BMO roaring, to his efficient passes, many of them bypassing lines of Honduras pressure, he was one player that didn’t look intimidated by the occasion, right from the get-go. 

Despite being just 22 years of age, and playing in front of Canadian supporters for the first time, he arguably looked the most poised of his teammates, rising in front of the bright lights. 

And for Canada, that’s huge. For a team that has had its fair share of question marks defensively, the emergence of Johnston as a good wing back, right back and right centre back option for Herdman has been huge, as he can plug him in whenever and get a strong game out of him. 

Thanks to his strong footballing IQ, Johnston reads the game so well, on both sides of the ball, and that was on full display Thursday, making him the standout performer of the evening without any question. 

“He was an absolute warrior,” Herdman said. “I think he epitomizes what we want to be about. I think with more rhythm, more training, more games, I think you’ll see even more from Alistair and what he can bring to the team.”

Johnston on the ball for Canada vs Honduras (Ben Steiner)

Tactics:

Moving elsewhere, though, it was a mixed bag tactically from Canada in this game, because for the first time in a while, Herdman actually lost the tactical battle on Thursday. 

First, he started with a 4-4-2 that had Davies and Buchanan as wide players, leaving Stephen Eustaquio and Atiba Hutchinson in a double-pivot. 

In theory, it’s an excellent idea. Unleashing Davies and Buchanan offensively in free roles is a dangerous thought, one that probably wouldn’t be fun to deal with if you’re an opposing defender. 

But while Davies had some bright moments, Buchanan was a bit quiet, so Herdman then made his 2nd tactical mishap, and that was to have them swap wings. Buchanan got on the ball a bit more, but Honduras did well to shut him down, while Davies cooled down after a bright start, not seeing the ball for a better part of 15 minutes. 

Seeing that Davies is Canada’s best player, and most important guy offensively, it killed their attacking momentum, and was partly why they struggled so hard in that first half. 

Herdman eventually came to his senses, as the Hoilett substitution, along with Davies’s return to the left side, gave Canada life in the 2nd half, but one can only wonder if they could’ve gotten off to a better start in this game had they avoided that switch. 

Secondly, compounding the issue of playing Davies and Buchanan wide in the 4-4-2, was the lack of midfield presence from Canada offensively by sticking Hutchinson and Eustaquio in a double-pivot with no support in front of them, which also hurt them. 

By electing to go for that 4-4-2, that meant Canada would be without their usual 3-man midfield that they used with success earlier this year, and it quickly became obvious that they missed the presence that having 3 in the middle of the park can bring. 

On the other end, with Honduras clogging up the middle, and Canada having no attacking midfield presence, it felt like the road team won every single central duel in the first half, making it hard for Canada to play through that area of the pitch. 

“They’re a team that thrives on counter-attacking,” Johnston said of Honduras after the game. “They had a really good medium block that they sat in, and they were very effective of coming out of it and really putting us under pressure on the counter.”

Considering that playing through the middle is a staple of their game,  and that they weren’t getting the usual joy that they sometimes find in wide areas, either, it made for a frustrating first half, as the scoreline indicated. 

So heading into the next game, a few changes need to be made. 

First, Canada needs to prioritize playing 3 players in midfield, because with the talent that they’ve got in that area in the park, there are not many teams that can match them there when they do that. Even if teams do what Honduras did and clog things up, Canada can play through that if they’ve got triangles that having 3 players in the middle provides, and theoretically, the more that they control the middle, the more those coveted wide areas will open up. 

Secondly, Canada needs to find a way to keep Larin and Jonathan David from getting so isolated up front. Be it by having that third midfield body, or by having one of the two dropping deeper (usually David), Canada needs to get that pair more involved. 

Lastly, they need to keep Davies in a free role as a wing back, allowing him to make his bursting runs from deeper positions. He still toyed with Honduras’s defenders for most of the night, but they were able to close him down before they played the final ball, and that’s because he didn’t always get the space to get going and create the sort of separation that he can create over a longer distance. 

If it means throwing in a player like Sam Adekugbe behind him to offer adequate defensive protection if you’re worried that he gets caught out on the counter, so be it, but it’s no coincidence that he turned it on in the 2nd half in more of a wing back type role, and Canada will need to ensure he remains in a similar role going forward. 

In The Mixer:

Lastly, here are some other little things that stood out from this game.

  • Credit to BMO Field for bringing the noise. 14 822 was the official attendance, just short of the 15 000 that would’ve been a sell-out under current health restrictions, but as said by Johnston after the game, it sounded like “triple of that”, and that’s full credit to those in attendance. 
  • Cyle Larin just keeps on scoring goals. He’s now scored in 8 of the 10 games he’s played for Canada this year, and is up to 11 total, now. What a year’s he’s having. 
  • With that penalty win, Junior Hoilett now has 4 goals, 4 assists and 2 penalties won this year, putting up to 10 direct goal contributions this year, which is tied for 2nd on Canada behind Larin with Davies. Not a bad year for someone who often has come off the bench for this team in 2021.
  • It was another solid game for Canada’s defence. In 12 games in 2021, they’ve allowed more than 1 goal in a game just once, and haven’t allowed more than 1 open play goal in a game. For a team with a supposedly weak defence, it hasn’t shown to be all that true this year, as they’ve grown a lot in that area of their game this year. 
  • Interestingly enough, though, that was the 3rd time in the last 4 games that Canada hasn’t scored more than 1 goal in a game. For a team with a lot of offensive firepower, they’ll want to change that if they’ll want to pick up results in this Octo, especially if their defence keeps holding things relatively tight as they have.

Looking Forward:

So now, Canada has just a few days to lick their wounds to get back at it, as is the nature of the beast in the Octo. 

In just 3 days, on Sunday, Canada has a trip to the US to take on Nashville on their calendar now, where they’ll take on a high-flying US side in front of their home fans. 

Considering that game might be the least hostile away game that Canada will have to face in this round, especially seeing some of the atmospheres from some of the other games in the first matchday of the Octo on Thursday, Canada will want to find a way to grab at least a point out of that. 

With the US being quite the strong team at home, that won’t be an easy task, but fuelled by what they learned from this one, they’ll look to make the improbably a reality, righting the wrong of this tough draw. 

It’s still early in this Octo, so they still have plenty of time to turn things around and make something happen, and there’s no better way to get back on track with that than a result on Sunday. 

“These guys are going to be warriors,” Herdman said. “They’ll patch themselves back up, we’ll take every camp like it’s our last, and we’ll be giving everything, so some of these guys will recover, and do the work to reset ourselves for the US. 

Up Next: Canada vs USA, Sunday, September 5th, 2021, 17:00 PDT, 20:00 EDT (Nissan Stadium, Nashville)

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