“I think we’re a top team in CONCACAF”: The CanMNT takes massive step towards the 2022 World Cup & CONCACAF supremacy with 2-1 win over Mexico at the ‘Iceteca’

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team picked up a massive 2-1 victory over Mexico in Edmonton on Tuesday, putting them one step closer to the 2022 World Cup. Here’s what stood out to us from that one. 

Even before kick-off, you just knew that this would be a night to remember. 

After a MD-1 unlike no other on Monday, Tuesday’s clash between Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team and Mexico promised to be a wild night, both on and off the pitch, for a multitude of reasons. 

Played in a frosty Edmonton, where temperatures were well below freezing at kick-off, earning Commonwealth Stadium the nickname the ‘Iceteca’ on social media, Canada had brought this crucial World Cup qualifier to the city for a reason, and that was to freeze their Mexican opponents, who aren’t used to this sort of weather. 

And that plan worked to a tee. 

Thanks to a key Cyle Larin brace, along with some big Milan Borjan saves, Canada were able to pick up a massive 2-1 win over El Tri, putting up an overall pretty dominant performance against one of the giants of CONCACAF. 

“I want to give a big thanks to Edmonton, they’ve done everything, literally everything, to make this city a fortress,” Canadian head coach, John Herdman, said after the game. “The country is behind us, we felt that, and the boys delivered tonight”

Thanks to that, they now finished the November international break atop the heap in the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, where they currently sit 1st out of 8 teams with 16 points, leading the race for one of 3 automatic spots to the 2022 World Cup. 

But that was just the result of what turned out to be a pretty magical night in Edmonton. 

With it being their first win over Mexico since 2000, and first over them in a World Cup qualifier since 1976, this win was a long-time coming for Canada, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for them, putting them as close to a World Cup as they’ve been since they last made it that far back in 1986. 

As a result of that, it’s gotten CanMNT fever trending all over the country, as people can sense what is going on with this team, and that all came to a head in this game, which will be one to remember for this country. 

So with that in mind, here’s a look at what stood out from this match, one that Canada won’t soon want to delete the tape on, as they continued their journey towards the 2022 World Cup in style on Tuesday. 

The cold plays a factor:

And to start the match, there was one thing that was certainly dominating the discussion in most circles, and that was the weather, which was a huge talking point heading into this game.

After a massive snowstorm in Edmonton the two previous nights, and with temperatures dropping to a cool -10 degrees Celcius at kick-off, with the windchill sitting somewhere just around -20 degrees, it was very cold in Edmonton to start the game, hence all of the Iceteca jokes. 

“Every country uses their terrains as an advantage, and we saw this as an advantage,” Herdman said after the game. “This was a genuine opportunity to bring out the Canadian (in us), as for us, we wanted to make it feel like we’re home”

Because of that, it made for a very cagey start to the game. 

Eager to offer up a warm welcome to their guests, Canada came out very physically, looking to give Mexico a taste of what it’s like to play in the cold. 

Just a few minutes into the game, Canada’s Doneil Henry caught Mexico’s Hirving Lozano with a thunderous bodycheck, one that left the Mexican star on the ground for multiple minutes, giving him an early taste of the pain that getting fouled on a cold night gives. 

And that wouldn’t be the first hard tackle by either team, too, who woken up by the early foul, really both seemed to grow into the game, getting up for the physical battle that they knew lied ahead. 

As a result, it made for a very tightly contested first half, as both teams fought for every inch on the field, making it hard for either side to really control the game. 

“We’ve been scrapping every game, at every opportunity we try to show that this is life or death for us,” Herdman said. 

So seeing that, it was no surprise to see that neither team really got a good look at goal until the 23rd minute, when Canada’s Cyle Larin found a bit of space down the right-hand flank, and he did well to get a shot off, but his attempt would be a bit too tame, making it easy for Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa to save in his goal. 

Then, a few minutes later, Tajon Buchanan had a nice look down the left flank after a fantastic ball from Stephen Eustaquio, and he did well to nearly fashion a chance for himself, but his shot would be blocked, leading to a corner. 

Other than that, though, that’d be pretty much all that this game would have to offer as it reached half time, as the cold ultimately seemed to take over the game. 

Obviously, it was playing a role, and that was being shown on the pitch, so you could only wonder if either team would find a breakthrough, or if a 0-0 seemed the likely outcome, something that we were left to ponder as half time neared. 

Canada’s Alistair Johnston celebrates this win over Mexico in a t-shirt despite the elements (Keveren Guillou)

Larin continues to get the job done:

But then, up stepped Cyle Larin. 

Making his first start for Canada since September 5th, having missed 4 of the 5 qualifiers that his team played since that with injury, only returning to the lineup for the first time this past weekend to feature as a substitute in Canada’s 1-0 win over Costa Rica, you only wondered what he’d have to offer up in this game. 

Considering that heading into this game, he led all of CONCACAF in World Cup qualifying goals this cycle with 9 goals, all coming part of a year that has seen him score a whopping 12 goals for his country, you just felt that based on his current form, he was due a goal. 

So seeing that, it almost felt fitting to see him get on the board in the 45th minute, giving Canada a massive lead. 

Off of a bouncing ball about 25 yards from goal, the ball first bounced right to Canada’s Alistair Johnston, and he decided to unleash a shot from distance. 

And by unleash, he most definitely did that – as his rocket bounced right in front of Ochoa, who was only able to get a hand on the chance, parrying it into danger. 

But by doing that, he hit the ball to the wrong man, Larin, and from there the Canadian striker did the rest, burying home the chance on his first touch, giving him his 10th of this World Cup qualifying cycle, and 13th of the year. 

It all happened so quickly, but it was a massive goal for Canada, putting them on the front foot right at the perfect moment. 

And the thing was, he was just getting started, too. 

Having blown the metaphorical roof off of Commonwealth with his goal right before half, it clearly gave him and his team a boost, one that they looked to bring through halftime and into the second stanza. 

With Mexico right where they wanted them, they knew that it was not the time to lift their foot off the gas pedal, so sensing that, they looked to truly put their opponents to the sword. 

But at the same time, while that idea is simple in theory, it’s much harder in practice, making you wonder if they’d actually do it. 

So naturally, knowing that his team needed to eliminate that doubt, up stepped Larin once again in the 52nd minute, right at the perfect moment, not too dissimilar to what he did in the first half.

Off of a lovely wide free-kick from Stephen Eustaquio, Larin did well to get in behind Mexico’s defensive line and onto the end of the cross, and from there, he made no mistake with the opportunity, slotting home the ball right into the bottom left corner from close range. 

With that, he once again sent Canada’s fans into a joyous roar, as they were well aware of what that goal meant for their team, who thanks to Larin, were well on their way to a historic victory. 

Yet, that’s just what Larin has done for Canada this year. It seems like every time his team needs a clutch goal, he finds a way to come up big, always doing so at the right moment. 

For a player who was on the fringes of the squad just 2 years ago, he’s quickly changed that with his play this year, and for Canada, that’s been massive. 

But, that just shows how quickly things can change for a player. 

2 years ago, Larin was a forgotten man at his club, Besiktas, but 2 massive seasons later, he’s indispensable for them, too, helping them win the Turkish league and qualify for the Champions League this past season, and has so far continued that good form into the new season with them, too. 

So thanks to that, he’s started to become a key part of this Canadian team, as well, and this goal was a perfect example of what that’s looked like for them this year. 

That save:

But from there, with the 2-0 lead in their pocket (obligatory dos a cero reference), one could only wonder how the rest of the game would go for Canada, especially considering that they still had over 30 minutes to play. 

Despite the cold, you just knew that Mexico were going to fashion up some sort of push, and while it seemed unlikely that push would lead to anything game-altering, if there’s a team that you’d expect to have the talent to throw this game on its head, it’s Mexico. 

So it was surprising to then see Mexico seem to hit a wall for the next little while, seemingly having given up on the game. They were still fashioning together some nice sequences of play, and looked like they had a goal in them, but you just had no idea where they’d generate it from, as Canada also seemed up for the challenge. 

But then, everything turned on its head right at the end of the match. 

Sensing that the game was all but gone, Mexico mustered up one last push right in the 90th minute, as they looked to at least go out into the night with a fight. 

And to give them credit, it ended up working for them. 

All of a sudden, they started to send some dangerous balls into the box, and right as the clock hit the 90th minute, one of them connected, as Jesus Corona found Hector Herrera with a perfect cross, and Herrera made no mistake with the chance, nodding the ball into the corner of the net. 

All of a sudden, it made what looked like a comfortable result for the hosts seemed a lot less sure than it did just a few minutes earlier, all thanks to the man who broke Canadian hearts at this summer’s Gold Cup, Herrera, who once again continued to come up clutch for Mexico. 

Plus, with that goal, it completely threw the game on its head, too, as the momentum was all in Mexico’s favour, and they recognized that, throwing everything they had towards the Canadian goal in the last minutes.

Then, at around the 92nd minute, the moment that changed everything occurred. 

Off of a corner, Mexico whipped in a very dangerous ball, and it fell right to a wide-open Jorge Sanchez at the back post, who seemingly had the net at his mercy. 

From there, he chested the ball towards the goal, seemingly scoring the Mexican dagger for Canada, as the ball seemed sure to end up in the back of the net, giving them a 2-2 lead. 

Or so he thought. 

Despite everyone believing that the ball was about to go in, on both teams, someone didn’t tell Canada’s goalkeeper, Milan Borjan, that, as he launched himself at the effort. 

And to everyone’s surprise, he actually then kept it out, and then stopped all of Mexico’s subsequent attempts that came afterwards, not only on that sequence, but for the rest of the game, too, allowing Canada to pick up the win. 

On a night where he hadn’t had much to do up until that point, at least other than some routine saves, it was a game-changing moment, because without his save, Canada draws or even maybe loses this game, as the momentum was all in Mexico’s favour. 

But instead, the pendulum then swung back in Canada’s favour after the stop, as they suddenly woke up and realized what had happened to them, allowing them to fight back and wrestle control back of a game that was quickly slipping away from them, giving them the legs to hold on. 

“That was the longest 6 minutes of my bloody life,” Herdman joked after the game. “Big thanks to Milan Borjan and everyone else who put their bodies on the line there”

When his team needed a hero, up stepped Borjan, and while he’s not necessarily a name that steals the headlines all that often, he showed that he’s just as important as some of the big names on this roster. 

Despite getting up there in age, having recently turned 34, he continues to make the trek halfway around the world each window that he’s available for to go from Serbia, where he plays his club soccer, to the various nations of CONCACAF, willing to represent his team at every occasion. 

So even though he had to overcome another arduous journey just to get here, and has his backup goalkeeper, Maxime Crepeau, breathing down his neck, he showed that he’s not yet ready to give up his net to the next generation quite yet, instead showing that if he’s going to go down, he’s going to go down with a fight. 

And that was good news from Canada, who got another big performance to add to an international career filled with them, helping them have a night to remember. 

Milan Borjan lets out a cheer after this victory vs Mexico (Keveren Guillou)

Kamal Miller’s big night:

Otherwise, though, one player who most certainly deserves credit after this game is Kamal Miller, who once again had a massive game at the heart of Canada’s defence. 

Despite having to deal with the fact that the defence around him didn’t end the night the same way that it started, due to an injury to starter Doneil Henry that forced him to make way for Steven Vitoria, he stayed steady through that, just putting up a no-nonsense performance. 

So while his night was spoiled a bit by the Mexican goal, even though he wasn’t really at fault for it, it shouldn’t take away from how good he was on the evening. 

Right inside the first few minutes, he let people know that he was up for this one by delivering a crunching slide tackle on Lozano, who tried to beat him with pace, but Miller stood strong, snuffing that out. 

From there, he seemed to be on a cloud, and that was evident every time that he cleared the ball, got stuck into a duel, or won a tackle. 

Up against some of the best attackers in the region, he didn’t seem bothered whatsoever by the occasion, just playing as he always does, which is with just that right amount of freedom, combined with a ruthless intent to win every ball, and that made him so effective on the night. 

Yet, that’s just been Miller for Canada this year. 

Having entered 2021 with only 5 appearances for his country to his name, he’s quickly added to that as the year has gone along, as this was his 12th appearance out of a possible 19 in 2021, showing how big of a year it really was for him. 

But thanks to a transaction to Montreal from Orlando in the offseason, that’s allowed him to get more and more comfortable at his natural position, centre back, after having mostly played at left back when he was with the Lions. 

And he’s taken that and run with it, both for club, where he’s a rock at the back for Montreal, and for country, where he seems to get better with each and every game. 

No matter the opponent, or the occasion, Miller always seems to come up big, and this was a prime example of that, showing why his star has continued to rise in 2021. 

Tactics:

Elsewhere, this was quite the night for Canada tactically, because despite a surprise change from Mexico to move to a back 5 right before the game, they responded quite nicely to the change.

By shifting to a 3-4-3 of their own, one that sometimes even became a 4-4-2, Canada were able to match what Mexico was aiming to do, which was to keep things quiet at the back and try and play through midfield and into the central channels, which is why they played a front 2 of Lozano and Raul Jimenez. 

Defensively, to match that, Canada looked to keep a flexible back 3, one that shifted between being wide and narrow to try and avoid being caught out by Jimenez and Lozano, who were hovering into some dangerous channels, but due to Canada’s tactical adjustment, they weren’t able to do all that much. 

It was a risky ploy from Canada, as that meant they only had 2 players in midfield, Atiba Hutchinson and Stephen Eustaquio, which was interesting, because while the pair could clearly handle themselves, it was a risk considering how much worse Canada tends to look when they run with a double pivot versus a midfield trio. 

In this game, though, it worked wonderfully, as Hutchinson and Eustaquio were everywhere defensively, shutting down the Mexican midfield, making it a pretty quiet night for their opponents. They lost their legs a bit at the end, which helps explain the late Mexican push and goal, but otherwise, they were machines for the rest of the game, helping this formation tick. 

So when you combine that with Canada’s press, which they didn’t go as gung-ho with as usual, forcing Mexico to play through them, it was overall a good defensive strategy, one that worked pretty well. 

Yet, that’s just another day at the office for the Canadian defence, who has only conceded 11 goals in 19 games this year, and this game is a prime example of why. 

At the other end of the pitch, it was a bit more of a mixed performance, because while Canada did a good job of moving the ball around the back, the double-pivot they had did make it a bit harder to play through midfield than usual, mostly due to the ground that they had to cover. 

When Hutchinson and Eustaquio were able to get into position, they had some success, but it was stop-and-go, but that was just the price they paid by aiming to shut down Mexico with this formation. 

Up front, though, when the ball did find its way up the pitch, Canada were able to attack some very dangerous channels, although they did struggle at times to make the most of the space they found. 

So seeing that, it was no surprise that Canada’s 2 goals came off of a rebound and a set-piece, because while they had chances to do some damage in open play, they just would miss the dribble, pass or shot every time they got a good opportunity, just struggling to execute in those moments. 

Obviously, the cold played a role in that, as on most nights Canada is pretty spot on in that area of their game, so while it would’ve been nice to see Canada put Mexico to the sword with a 3rd or 4th goal, in most games they probably would’ve done so, especially if they keep creating these sorts of opportunities. 

Overall, though, it was a pretty spot-on performance from Canada tactically, as they knew how to target Mexico, and made the most of that, allowing them to pick up a massive victory, one that they won’t soon forget. 

In the Mixer:

Lastly, here are some other bits and bobs that stood out from this one. 

  • Shout out to Atiba Hutchinson for captaining Canada on the night that he broke the all-time CanMNT caps record, as there’s something so fitting about that. Having been through so much with this program, he deserved to be a part of a night like this, and that he bossed the midfield in the process is even better, making it a memorable night for him. 
  • Otherwise, it was a record-breaking night for Brampton players who play for Besiktas, as Hutchinson’s club teammate, Larin, also had a record-setting moment of his own, too. With his 2nd goal, his 22nd in a Canadian shirt, he actually tied Dwayne De Rosario atop the all-time CanMNT goalscoring charts, which is quite the special honour. Based on the year that he’s had, though, it’s only fitting that Larin was able to do so, making this another moment to remember for him. 
  • Credit to Edmonton for showing up for both of these games. With the crowd, and the elements, it just seemed to give Canada an extra edge, helping them push to get 6 out of 6 points this window. On the road towards a World Cup, these are the sorts of moments that go a long way towards making that happen, and Edmonton helped provide them in spades.  
  • Lastly, shout out to Alistair Johnston and Sam Adekugbe for rocking the short sleeves in this game despite the elements. There’s nothing more Canadian than that. 

Looking Forward: 

Otherwise, there’s not much else to be said about this night, other than one word – wow. 

Obviously, there have been some special nights for Canada on the road to where they are now, but after everything that went on in the lead-up to this game, and then the spectacle of the game itself, a win for the home team just was such a fitting end to everything this week has provided. 

Now, thanks to that, Canada gets to finish this window on top of the Octo, something they surely would’ve never dreamed of being able to say months ago, but now it’s true, with this memorable game being a big reason for that. 

So while the heavy lifting is still yet to come, as Canada still have 6 massive games left to play in the Octo, that they can head into those matches atop the Octo standings is huge, as they’ll now look to prove that they belong there, having already shown that they’re a lot closer to CONCACAF’s elite than people realized. 

And with this win over Mexico, a team they have always struggled with historically, that is one massive step towards doing that, so now they’ll need to continue off of that, because if they do, the sky’s the limit for this team now, with this game being a prime example of that. 

“I think we’re a top team in CONCACAF,” Larin said after the game. “Our team believes that, and we now want to qualify for the World Cup”

Up Next: Canada vs Honduras, Thursday, January 27th, 2021, Time TBD (Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula)

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