The CanMNT continued their hot run of form in the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, on Thursday, as they picked up a massive 2-0 win over Honduras to cement their spot atop the Octo standings. Here’s what stood out to us from that one.
Heading into a familiar house of horrors, many wondered if they’d sink or swim.
On paper, the CanMNT’s trip to Honduras on Thursday might’ve looked like a routine matchup for the current leaders of the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, especially given Honduras’s position at the bottom of the table.
In reality, it was so much tougher than that. With humid weather, a troublesome pitch, and a Honduras team eager to prove that they were much better than their slow start waiting for them out on the pitch, Canada had to be careful heading into this game.
Having last won in Honduras 37 long years ago, they were more than familiar with the challenges that playing in Central America can offer, something that they made sure to caution in the lead-up to the game, so it wasn’t as they were heading into his game blind.
At the same time, though, with their history in this region, it felt hard to imagine them picking up a result, especially for those who had followed them for a long time.
Because of that, many wondered if they’d struggle in this game, especially given some of the external factors that were at play, such as the fact that they were missing some key players, and that half of their team wasn’t even in season.
But as they’ve quickly started to earn a reputation for doing recently, Canada quickly shut down those fears, eager to prove the doubters wrong and snap that Honduras drought.
And prove them wrong did they ever, as they then went out and picked up a convincing 2-0 win, one that not only keeps them atop of the Octo, but inches them all that much closer to World Cup qualification in the process, especially considering that Honduras can now no longer catch them in the standings.
“It was the mentality,” Canadian head coach, John Herdman, credited the win to after, “We set the mentality in the first three days, it wasn’t going to be that night where the perfect night was there, we had to have a good bad day, and that was the mentality I was setting them up with.”
It wasn’t pretty, as Honduras had plenty of solid chances, testing Canada’s resolve on many occasions, but despite that, Les Rouges held strong, while finding a way to score 2 clutch goals along the way.
So while it might not have been their best game of this cycle, it’s certainly up there for one of the most memorable, as they just once again found a way to deliver in the clutch moment.
“I think the mentality tonight, we (knew) that we were going to have to fight,” Herdman continued. “(We had to) fight for everything.”
He added: “We’re able to create a mentality that’s required for the moment, and the mentality tonight was to make sure that we came out there, did no matter what it took to win, and I think the boys committed to that.”
And now, it’s put them all the much closer to the World Cup. With this win, Canada has quietly now put together 4 wins in a row here, and are the only team yet to lose in the Octo, as they’ve just continued to find a way to get points out of games.
Long before the Octo started, many noted that the formula to make the World Cup would be as follows: win your home games, and snatch points away. And, with this win, Canada have pretty much done that, picking up 13 out of a possible 15 points at home, as well as 6 of a possible 12 away, which is just as important.
It’s not enough yet to send them to Qatar quite yet, of course, but they’re well on track, putting them in great spirits as they prepare to head into their next game, which is a top-of-the-table clash vs the 2nd-placed US at home.
Before looking ahead to then, though, let’s take a look back at this game, it was certainly a memorable one for Canada, helping them continue their long journey towards the 2022 World Cup.
Tough atmosphere plays an early role:
Heading into this one, there was a lot of talk about the tough home atmosphere that Canada would face as the road team. And rightfully so.
There’s a reason why Honduras is known across the region for their intimidating home-field atmosphere, and that’s because it has a way of chewing up teams and spitting them out, something Canada is well aware of.
So even though the game was at half capacity due to COVID restrictions, and this wasn’t the same Honduras team of old, it was important that Canada find a way not to be overrun by the occasion.
This Canadian team has proven to be capable of handling the big occasion, as they’ve shown throughout the Octo with results on the road in tough environments such as the US and Mexico, as well in some massive home dates, but at the same time, this was the first visit to Central America for many of these players, hence the fear from many Canadian supporters.
And those fears would be validated almost right away, too, as Honduras came out flying to start the game. Despite the smaller crowd, the atmosphere was buzzing, and Los Catrachos nearly gave them something to cheer about right away, as they put the pressure on Canada by picking up a couple of early corners, nearly finding the net on one of them.
Canada hung on, narrowly, but it certainly set the tone, and was an instant reminder of what this game would bring to the table.
It was cagey, it was chaotic, and for Canada, it left them to quickly try and figure things out as the match started to unfold, because the way it was trending, it looked like it was only a matter of time before the hosts got themselves on the board.
Tajon Buchanan continues to be unfazed by the big occasion:
But then, having gotten a taste of the intense atmosphere early on, Canada started to really grow into the game.
Having weathered that early storm, they started to play their game, doing well to put together some nice spells of possession, while starting to keep the Honduran attackers at bay.
And that’d pay off for them in the 10th minute.
Off of a nice bit of play down the right-hand side, Jonathan David did well to unlock Tajon Buchanan in space after a nice 1-2, and from there, Buchanan did well to attack the Honduran backline with speed.
Then, having gotten to the goal line, he looked up, spotted a swarm of bodies at the back post, and ripped a bullet of a cross to try and reach one of his teammates in a red shirt.
He wouldn’t be successful in that quest, as he’d actually find a white shirt, that of Denil Maldonado, but luckily for Buchanan, it’d then bounce off the Honduran defender and into the net, giving Canada an opening goal.
It wasn’t the way that they drew it up, no doubt, but a goal was a goal, and Canada wouldn’t certainly complain about that.
And, in a sense, it was quite fitting to see that it came off the foot of Buchanan. When it was announced that Canada’s star man, Alphonso Davies, would be missing these games, one of the reasons that many weren’t too worried was due to the presence of Buchanan, who despite having only 1 year of National Team experience under his belt, has quickly grown into one of the team’s key players now.
Plus, not only has he stepped up for Canada in games, but seems to come up even bigger when his team needs him, especially in the key moments.
Down 1-0 to Mexico in the semi-finals at the Gold Cup, and severely shorthanded offensively? Buchanan stepped up and scored a crucial equalizer, putting back Canada in the game before they suffered late heartbreak.
Without Davies and with just 2 points from their first 2 games in the Octo, getting set to face El Salvador? Buchanan had 1 goal and 1 assist in a 3-0 win.
In a crucial, borderline must-win game against Panama in October? He scored in a 4-1 win.
So if anything, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see Buchanan step up when he did, especially given Canada’s situation.
Not only is he one of the team’s most skilled players, someone who has an ability to change a game in an instant, but he seems to play with no fear, playing every game like it was just a kickaround on the park, and that’s what’s made him so valuable to this team.
Because of that, it’s going to make him one to watch going forward. Having made a big move from New England to Club Brugge, he’s now got a platform at a top club, and at just 22, it feels like Brugge isn’t going to be his final landing spot in Europe, especially given his solid start to life there.
And for Canada, that’s exciting, as he’s going to be a big part of this team’s future going forward, with his play so far this Octo just being a taste of what you have to imagine is still to come for him in a red jersey.
Canada’s backline holds on tight:
But then, things got nervy for Canada.
It should’ve been expected, of course, especially as an already desperate Honduras started to realize the gravity of their situation, but it was still a surprise to then see them really turn the gears up, eager to grab something, anything for their fans to cheer about.
Heading into the second half, it ramped the pressure right up for the Canadian defence. Having already lost defensive midfielder, Samuel Piette, to an injury in the first half, they were already up against it a bit, as Honduras started to find that next gear.
But despite that, Canada instead bent, but didn’t break. Honduras came close on a few occasions, as Anthony Lozano came close with a nice header in the 59th minute, before Canada’s Milan Borjan absolutely robbed Kervin Arriaga with a lovely save.
And a big part of that? The Canadian backline.
3 years ago, it might’ve been a tier 3 backline in John Herdman’s eyes, but that certainly isn’t the case anymore, as they once again proved their value in this game.
Facing the Honduran onslaught, they just seemed to have an answer for everything that their opponents threw at them.
Be it Alistair Johnston trying to get stuck into every tackle, Steven Vitoria soaking up aerial balls, or Scott Kennedy just locking down the left side, (and of course, Borjan’s big saves), it feels like every Canadian defender played their best possible game on the night, and that allowed Canada to keep a clean sheet.
And that was reflected in the Expected Goals (xG). Even through the onslaught, Canada held Honduras to just 0.66 xG, so although they’ll feel that some chances could’ve gone in, the result was ultimately a fair indication of the performance that was from the Canadian backline.
Yet, it was just another day at the office for that backline, who through 9 games in this Octo, has conceded just 5 goals, keeping 4 clean sheets along the way, finding themselves as one of the best defences in CONCACAF this cycle by most metrics.
You tell a Canadian fan that 2.5 years ago, they’d laugh at you, but that just shows how far Canada has come in that area of their game, and on nights like these, it can make such a big difference.
David joins the party:
And the great thing about Canada’s defensive effort is that with every block, every clearance and every tackle that they made, when you remembered some of the talent that Canada has at the other end of the field, you just felt that it was buying a few minutes for someone to put this game on ice.
So fittingly, the ‘Iceman’ stepped on up, as Jonathan David lived up to his nickname in the 73rd minute, delivering the final dagger to the Hondurans.
Already having one of his most complete games in a Canadian shirt, covering all sorts of ground on and off the ball, doing a great job of helping his team keep possession, while also doing a lot of dirty work defensively, it just felt like David was due a moment of magic, especially when he went on a wavy second-half run that just saw him scuff the finish after covering half the pitch and turning some defenders inside out.
And that moment came in that 73rd minute.
After a bit of Honduran pressure in the Canadian half, Canada’s Liam Fraser managed to pick up the ball, look up, and just loft one in behind the Honduran defence, where he found a running David in space.
The weight on the ball was immaculate, and it almost just seemed to sit in the air for David, who was all alone behind the defence.
But despite that, it wasn’t as straightforward as that, as the ball was also floating chest high, with 2 Honduran defenders quickly closing down David.
Yet, realizing that, David then cushioned the ball with his chest with a world-class first touch, before heading it forward on his second touch, putting him in behind the defence, and face-to-face with an onrushing Luis Lopez in the Honduras goal, who had quickly come off his line to impede David.
And David, on just his 3rd touch, having covered 25 yards of ground to get the edge of the box, then managed to delicately loft the ball over Lopez and into the goal, before reeling off to the corner in celebration, having doubled Canada’s lead.
With that, not only had he all but put an end to the game, but he did so in immaculate style, showing the class that has quickly garnered him a reputation as one of the best strikers in the world right now in Europe.
Plus, he also quieted a lot of doubters that have suggested that David’s strong club form for Lille doesn’t always translate over to Canada, as there was no doubt that he was a man in-form on that goal.
“That goal he scored, I mean that was special,” Herdman reminisced.
So now, thanks to that moment, Canada was able to finish off a game that could’ve easily gone south at 1-0, and it was all due to that bit of brilliance from David, who thanks to this goal, has quietly climbed to 2nd in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying top goalscorer charts with 8 goals, and is now tied for 1st in the Octo goalscoring charts with fellow teammate, Cyle Larin, with 4 goals, with 3 of those coming in his last 4 games (3 starts).
Not bad for a guy whose form for Canada had many worried about just a few months ago.
“I take my hat off to him,” Herdman added. “You see that his running stats, they’re right up there, but then he can produce that big moment, and it was late in the game, he’d put a big shift in, and he’s still there to be that Iceman, as he has ice in his veins in those big moments.”
Otherwise, shifting elsewhere, it’s worth noting how important Canada’s tactical profile was to this result.
Heading into the game, it was a big topic of conversation, especially given how Honduras arguably won the tactical battle when these two teams met at the beginning of Octo in a 1-1 draw in Toronto.
But to give Canada credit, they rectified a lot of those errors in this game.
In that first match, for example, they were massively overrun in midfield, as they played a sort of 3-5-2 that looked more like a 3-3-4 at times, and they struggled to play the physical Honduran midfield block.
That wasn’t the case in this game, however, as they elected to go for more of a traditional 3-5-2, with Junior Hoilett playing as a #10 and Jonathan David dropping deep alongside him, making it a narrow 3-4-2-1 at times, and that really allowed Canada to grasp control of this game.
Thanks to that, despite the state of the pitch, which didn’t really encourage fancy possession play, Canada were able to put together some nice passing moves, allowing them to control the ball (and in turn the game), in several key moments.
But what was equally as good was that in the situations where they lost the ball, Canada stuck to the defensive principles that they showed in that first game, as they did a great job of getting numbers behind the ball and nullifying Honduras on transition.
As a result, they were able to keep Honduras out of the dangerous areas that they thrive in when in transition, instead forcing them to play more static on the ball, which isn’t their strong suit.
So while Honduras still had some great chances to score in this game, especially off of set pieces, which Canada were uncharacteristically sloppy on, they kept their opponents’ dangerous attackers, such as Alberth Elis, Anthony Lozano and Romell Quioto, from going to their ‘money’ plays, and that made a massive difference for them.
“I thought our back 5 tonight stood strong,” Herdman noted. “Thought they (Honduras) had some good moments from flank areas, but the thing that they never did, which we’ve seen from them time and time again, is hurt us in transition moments.”
And thanks to those two things, it allowed Canada to win the game. It might not have been pretty at times, but it was clear that they’d studied the tape on Honduras, and it allowed them to pick up a massive road win in the process.
In the Mixer:
Elsewhere, here are some bits and bobs that stood out from this one:
-Credit to Junior Hoilett and Scott Kennedy, who despite having last played for Canada on September 8th and September 5th, respectively, didn’t really miss much of a beat on their return. Really shows how deep this Canadian team is, and why that ‘next man mentality’ has served them so well.
-For all of the talk of Milan Borjan’s saves, the edge that he has in his game in CONCACAFery has to be mentioned. He just has such a suave way of killing a game with a timely injury, or some other shenanigans, when things start to get cagey. Underrated part of his game.
-Lucas Cavallini coming on the game, nearly creating a goal, and then picking up a yellow card just has to be mentioned. It really does.
-Hopefully Samuel Piette is all right. Injuries are never fun, but especially not for a player who is in preseason mode, as bad knocks early in a campaign can derail a season. If you’re Canada and CF Montreal, you’ll hope that it wasn’t anything too serious.
-Credit to Liam Fraser for coming off the bench and providing an assist. He just loves coming off the bench and making things happen, which could see him make more cameos as a super sub going forward.
-Don’t mention a slump to this Canadian team. They might just break it. Add tonight’s 37-year winless drought in Honduras to a long line of ones getting left in the wake in the past few years. And, if this continues, it won’t be long until a certain often-talked about one falls, at this rate…
So now, the fun is just beginning for Canada, who will return home and start preparing for their next game, a key clash against the US on Sunday.
It’s going to be a tough game, as the US has a strong squad, and are in a similar vein of good form as Canada, undefeated in 4 games (3 wins, 1 draw), but with the form that Canada is in, and their record at home, they’ll certainly back themselves ahead of that one.
Knowing that a victory could really put one of their feet in the door that is marked ‘Qatar 2022’, especially if some results go their way, they’ll want to come out with a purpose, eager to put on a show for their home fans.
And given the form that they’re in, it’s hard not to imagine them being successful in their pursuit. They might be shorthanded, and missing several key players (although they might get Eustaquio back for Sunday), but they haven’t missed a beat, and will want to ride that song right to more success.
“It’s a special story that’s unfolding here,” Herdman said. “And it seems like every man is being able to contribute on the journey.”
And after a win like this, yet another statement-defining win in a long line of them, this Canadian team has made a habit of knocking down the walls that sit in front of them on their road to the World Cup, and in the US, another key barrier now awaits them.
So having gotten a big hurdle out of the way in this one, they’re eager to get right back up and get going at home on Sunday.
“This game against the US, it’s about 2 teams desperate for 3 points,” Herdman said, “And will do anything for it.”
Up Next: Canada vs USA, Sunday, January 30th, 2022, 12:05 PST, 15:05 EST (Tim Hortons Field, Hamilton)
Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer