Octo Matchday 2: Anticipation high for another unpredictable round of matches

After a cagey start to the Octagonal, the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers, all 8 teams are looking for revenge in matchday 2. Here’s what to expect on Sunday.

The final whistle at BMO Field on Thursday brought supporters of Canada the bitter taste of missed opportunity and points dropped.

In what was the first match of this seven-month, 56-game round of competition, a win was expected from Canada. The celebrations in the Honduran technical area after securing the point was evidence for that. However, while some Canadian supporters may drift from enthusiastic optimism towards fear of the position Canada will be in going into the decisive fixtures (notably the return fixture with Honduras at San Pedro Sula’s Estadio Olimpico, which has been the site of nightmares for Canada’s men’s team in recent memory), a lot is still to change between now and then, in this final round that is unfamiliar to Canada, and even anyone else in CONCACAF in fact.

The Hex, featuring 6 teams, each playing 10 games, was already a long and unpredictable journey. It had been the format or choice for the final round of qualifying in the region since the 1998 World Cup cycle. It was after a pandemic forced a format change that this 8-team tournament came to be. Each team plays 14 matches, and with there being, averaged out, one match every two weeks between now and the end of March, the Octo in many ways resembles a league, more than it does any standard international competition.

After the attention shifted from Toronto to the other matches of Thursday evening, it became clear that every game in this Octo will be decisive, and that it is very difficult to predict the path each team will take. What was already going to be a long round of qualifying, is clearly going to become a marathon.

In the other games in the region, neither Panama or Costa Rica could find a goal, let alone more than a point, while Gold Cup champions USA were also held to a scoreless draw by El Salvador and their boisterous home crowd. Mexico found the only win of the opening round of matches, and it required an 89th minute winner at home against Jamaica.

A dissatisfied Canada camp witnessed 7 other teams that will all need to be taken seriously, but none of which should be feared. Even the seemingly impossible task of visiting Mexico at the Estadio Azteca will not be as daunting a trip as it has been in the past, given that there remains the possibility that the 88 thousand capacity stadium will be barred of all spectators for some games, and that even with a large pro-Mexican crowd presence for games, Canada showed at this summer’s Gold Cup that they can compete with the Mexicans. The moral of the night was one of sports’ most common clichés: take it one game at a time.

For Canada, that next game comes tonight against their neighbours to the south. While the coaching staff have quite the task of juggling player minutes among all three matches this window, the players will have their vision only on the game in front of them when they step into Nashville’s Nissan Stadium tonight. Yes, that is in part because this is Canada vs USA, but it’s mainly because that’s the approach Canada will have to take if they want to finish in the highest position possible this promising qualifying campaign.

Here’s what’s on the menu for the second round of matches on this Sunday, 5th of September:

Jamaica – Panama, 15:00 PT / 18:00 ET (Independence Park, Kingston). Watch: OneSoccer.

Jamaica is the only side without a point thus far. They will be keen to change that against Panama, who visit after failing to score in a home draw with Costa Rica. Jamaica are likely slight favourites given their home field advantage, but the first game on this second matchday should be expected to be just as tight as the first four have been.

El Salvador – Honduras, 16:00 PT / 19:00 ET (Estadio Cuscatlan, San Salvador)

If the atmosphere inside the Cuscatlan felt raucous on Thursday, then when the 53 thousand seater hosts these two bitter rivals the tension should be palpable. Add to that that the stakes of the competition. Like with the USA-Canada encounter, these two sides are coming off opening match draws which they will both be content with, but they will want to start getting full points if Qatar 2022 is in sight for either of them.

Costa Rica – Mexico, 16:00 PT / 19:00 ET (Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica, San José). Watch: OneSoccer.

Mexico missing out on the Gold Cup trophy and Costa Rica getting outplayed by Canada in the Quarterfinals has left them both wanting to prove themselves this September. Mexico made it more difficult than expected in their opening match. It took Henry Martín’s late goal to get past Jamaica at home. They sit alone atop the table to start, but Costa Rica’s homecoming does not mark a game they should expect to cruise through.

USA – Canada, 17:00 PT / 20:00 ET (Nissan Stadium, Nashville). Watch: TSN, RDS.

Alistair Johnston returns to the city if his club, Nasville SC.

Canada versus the United States. The evening rounds out with a marquee matchup between longtime rivals. Could this become a fixture considered to be a clash of CONCACAF giants? Canada sure hopes so. But staying in the present, pressure is high on both these two sides who feel that they let two points drop on Thursday.

It is on paper one of the most difficult matches of the campaign for the Red and White, who last beat the US on American soil in 1957, but if the opening matches of this round has taught us anything, it’s that in CONCACAF, what’s on paper doesn’t count for much.

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