“We’re relishing that opportunity”: Despite promise of hostile environment, the CanMNT is ready and eager to try and snap 37-year winless drought in Honduras on Thursday

The CanMNT is getting set to take on Honduras in a crucial CONCACAF World Cup qualifier on Thursday. Ahead of then, here’s how they’re feeling, as they head down to Central America with one thing on their mind – picking up 3 points.

Among the challenges that they’ve faced so far in this journey, this might rank as one of the most difficult. 

On paper, the CanMNT’s visit to Honduras on Thursday might not look out of the ordinary. In fact, it might look like a favourable matchup for Canada, especially given that they enter the game currently sitting on top of the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, while Honduras toils away in last place, 13 points behind their Canadian counterparts through 8 out of a possible 14 games. 

Yet despite that imbalance on paper, many are coming into this game expecting a tough matchup for Canada, one that will be quite hard to win. 

Which for those who know Honduras, is not that surprising. Not only are they known for having one of the most hostile home environments in CONCACAF, but they also have had Canada’s number in recent years, undefeated at home against Les Rouges since 1985. 

And considering that many of those home results that Los Catrachos picked up over that span were of the heartbreaking reality, including the last 2, which were a 2-1 result in 20216 where Canada led for a good chunk of the game, and an 8-1 drubbing in 2012, both games that played a big hand in Canada’s subsequent eliminations from World Cup qualifying contention in both of those cycles, that only adds to the history. 

So for Canada, this feels like a must-win game for reasons beyond the prospect of cementing their place atop the Octo. Not only could they ensure that Honduras will not be able to catch up to them with a win here, all but eliminating them from contention with 5 games to go, but they can avenge decades of pain in the region in the process, all while making up for a disappointing 1-1 draw at home with Honduras from the opening game of this Octo. 

Plus, as Canada gets closer to qualifying for that first World Cup since 1986, their lone participation in the big dance to this date, it only feels fitting that this game is one that could really push them towards being able to do that, given that their last win in Honduras, which came in 1985, did the same for them ahead of the 1986 tournament. 

Because of all that, it adds to what on paper would’ve seemed like a routine Octo matchup between two teams in very different places in the standings. Instead, with the history that these two teams share, there’s just so much more at stake, and while that will certainly be nerve-racking for a lot of Canadian fans, it’s also exciting, especially given this team’s tendency to try and take care of unfinished business this cycle.

And make no mistake, in this Honduras game, they’ve got a thick dossier worth of business to take care of, and they’ll look to do so without having it go up in flames. 

Honduras presents an intriguing challenge:

So heading into this matchup, it’ll now be interesting to see how this young team handles their first real foray into Central America, which they’ll get to do this trip. 

They’ve got experience with these sort of tough away games, having already played in Haiti, the US, Mexico and Jamaica in this cycle alone, but while a lot of those venues are certainly tough, the Central American ones (Honduras, El Salvador, Panama and Costa Rica) are known for taking the cake in CONCACAF in terms of how tough they are to play in, with Honduras being the crown jewel of that lot. 

It can be a deceiving experience, because often these teams might not stand out on paper the same way that a US or Mexico might, but there’s just this x-factor that they bring at home that completely changes things, as many teams have learned over the years. 

And Honduras has mastered that home-field advantage to a tee. 

You know that when you head to the country, it’s going to be hard enough just to fly in, and when you land, you’re going to have heavy armed convoys taking care of you. 

You know that it’s going to be humid and hot, and that the night before the game, the opposing fans are going to find your hotel and give you a warm welcome, with gifts consisting of fireworks and any other loud instruments that they can get their hands on. And of course, this comes at 2:00 AM. 

Then, you know that on game day, you will come to the stadium, and when you arrive, the fans will have already been there for a long time before, eager to watch their team play. And the noise will be deafening. The pitch, you know probably won’t be the greatest. 

Fighting through all of that, you then come up against a home team, who, backed by the support and familiar with the surroundings, will give absolutely everything they’ve got on the pitch, sticking to a tried and tested game plan. 

And that’s the uniqueness of the experience that these sorts of games can offer. 

So for Canada, they’ll have the choice to be consumed by all of that, or relish it.

In previous away games this cycle, they’ve embraced that, but they’ll have to find another level here, and the good news is that they’re ready for that. 

“Yeah, I think we’re relishing that opportunity,” Canadian head coach, John Herdman said. “We’ve seen all of the previous experiences of the National Team (in Honduras), and there’s no denying that it’s a place where if you don’t get excited for it, it can consume the mentality of the players.”

“For us, we had a mentality of going into the Azteca, and we’ve built a similar frame of mind for here, that we’re really going in to be tested, and looking forward to being tested by the crowd, by a Honduran team that’s fighting for their World Cup survival, and just everything that’s being thrown at us.”

But at the same time, it’ll be interesting to see how this young Canadian team handles this experience. Yes, this group has proven to be one that is unfazed by everything that’s been thrown at them this cycle (and to be fair, they’ve been thrown a fair bit), but again, this isn’t the easiest environment to dip your toes into, either.  

And, it’s not as if this squad is completely devoid of players who have played in Honduras before, either. 

In fact, of the last Canadian team to visit the country 6 years ago, 8 of those players are in this squad, including 5 who started that game in Junior Hoilett, Cyle Larin, Atiba Hutchinson, Doneil Henry and Milan Borjan, which does give Canada some experience to rely upon ahead of this game. 

So while it might be a new experience for many players who will be expected to feature on Thursday, those who have been there and done that will have certainly been in their ears ahead of this game, preparing them for what to expect. 

As long as they learn the lessons from those past losses, such as sticking to the game plan, taking your chances and defending tightly, there’s no reason why they can’t win.

They came close in 2016, spending 45 minutes in the lead before losing 2-1, and this team is much better than that one, so as long as they follow those principles, they feel that could be enough to get that victory they so badly crave. 

“It was a hostile environment,” Hoilett said when looking back on that 2016 game this week. “I think we started the game off well, but we didn’t kill the game, which we had chances to do so, so I think if we come into this game with the killer instinct that we came through the previous games with, we will be fine.”

“We just have to stick to the game plan, and make sure that we take our chances in these games, and don’t give them anything, no freedom, no space, and stay on the front foot and stick to our game plan.”

It won’t be easy, as Hoilett made sure to point out, but this Canadian team hasn’t backed down from any challenge that has been put in front of them so far this cycle, and they’ll look to do the same in this game. 

“Right now, Honduras has nothing to lose, I think they have to go out there and try to get maximum points, so I think they’re going to come out all guns blazing,” Hoilett warned. “And I think we just have to keep to the game plan, and remain solid, and don’t give them anything in the early parts of the game, and we should maintain that.”

“If we start the game off on the front foot, and solid, we’ll be fine throughout, we’ll dominate, so I expect them to come out all guns blazing as they have to get maximum points to have a fighting chance.”

Shutting down the Honduras offence:

And sticking to the theme of them coming out guns-a-blazin in this game, that is absolutely something that they’ve got to watch out for on Thursday.

While Honduras has been uncharacteristically struggling at home this cycle, losing 3 and drawing 1 of the 4 games that they’ve played, they’ve still been very dangerous in those 4 games, opening the scoring twice, and accumulating what Herdman rattled off to be the 3rd-best home Expected Goals (xG) in the region. 

So if you’re Canada, that has to absolutely be something to centre in on this game. Obviously, there’s all the talk of the travel, the crowd and the overall environment, of course, but it’s important to remember that on the pitch, this Honduras team still presents a lot of challenges. 

And that’s clear when you look at their offence. When looking at their projected front three for this game, Alberth Elis, Anthony Lozano and Romell Quioto, they make up what is argued to be one of the best attacking tridents in the region, and have proven that across 80+ combined caps for their country, as well as at their clubs. 

In fact, Elis is one of the most in-form strikers in Ligue 1 (and Europe) right now, sitting with 8 goals this season, while Lozano has 5 goals and 4 assists in La Liga so far this year. Even Quioto, who is out of season right now, isn’t a slouch either, having scored 19 goals across the last 2 campaigns for Montreal, just showing how dangerous those 3 can be. 

Because of that, it’s going to be paramount that Canada keeps them off the board on Thursday, as while Honduras has just 5 goals in 8 games this Octo, 2nd-worst behind El Salvador, that doesn’t feel reflective of the talent that they have, and given the xG that they’ve produced at home, they do feel due for a goal explosion. 

Herdman recognizes as much, though, and is ready for that challenge.

“Alberth Elis at the moment has been identified as one of the top 12 in-form strikers in Europe, he’s a real handful,” Herdman explained. “And (Anthony) Lozano has just found form in La Liga after coming back from his injury, and we all know about (Romell) Quioto, he’s an absolute weapon in many ways, so if that front three play, it’s a handful for any team to play.”

But on the flip side of all this for Canada? While Honduras’s offence is quite scary, their defence hasn’t exactly inspired confidence, as the 15 goals they’ve conceded in the Octo is last by a wide margin, 5 goals behind the next nearest team. 

Which, if you’re Canada, makes it imperative that you capitalize on that, scoring a few goals to add to their Octo-leading tally of 13. If they can do that, and keep up what they’ve done so far defensively (they’re also tied for first in the Octo in goals against with 5), there’s no reason why they can’t win this game. 

So for Canada, it’s important that they stay in the fight in this game. As mentioned earlier, the elements will be tough, and they’ll have to defend for their lives against the likes of Elis, Lozano and Quioto, but if they do so, the game can be there for the taking at the other end, as other teams have seen so far this cycle. 

“We’ve seen that their Achilles heel at home has been that they’ve conceded goals,” Herdman admitted. “They’ve been 2-up, they’ve been ahead against the US, and then conceded late, they were up against Panama, and then lost in the last 25 minutes.”

“So for us, it’ll be about believing that we can score, and knowing that you might not win the game in the first 10 minutes, it might be the last 10 minutes, but we have to stay in the fight, and believe that at any moment we can win the match.”

No Davies, no problem:

Sam Adekugbe, one of the names expected to step up in Alphonso Davie’s absence, controls the ball in Canada’s clash vs Costa Rica in November (Beau Chevalier)

Yet for all of the talk of the challenge that Honduras brings to this game, it’s worth noting that on their side, Canada is also battling challenges of their own as they come into this one. 

For example, they will be without their best player (and the best in CONCACAF) in Alphonso Davies, who has been ruled out of this window due to him picking up myocarditis after a recent COVID infection, which is a big blow.

 Plus, on top of that, it’s likely that they’ll be without one of their most important midfielders, too, in Stephen Eustaquio, who is in the squad for this camp, but currently out day-to-day isolating in an unknown location according to Herdman as he recovers from COVID, which would also be a big blow. 

The good news, though? If you’ve been paying attention to this Canadian team recently, they’ve quickly proven to be a team that doesn’t rely on just one player, making those absences more manageable.

So while it will hurt to be without Davies, this isn’t the first time they’ve had to do that this Octo (he missed their 3-0 win over El Salvador at home in September), and even though it might be more of unfamiliar territory for them to miss Eustaquio (he’s featured in every game this Octo, starting all but one), they do have the depth to cover for his absence in midfield. 

And even had they been available, with the quick turnaround time between games, the travel and the potential for injuries and suspensions (Canada currently has 7 players 1 yellow card away from a suspension, including Eustaquio), it’s entirely possible that both of them would’ve gotten a rest, imposed or not, at some point here anyway. 

If anything, them not being in this game will just open the door for a new player to step up in their absence, and given the growing quality in this Canadian side, that shouldn’t change much in terms of how Canada plays. 

On this journey to the World Cup, Canada wouldn’t be where they are now without their depth, so while you never want to see players go down, as once person said, one door closed is just another one opened. 

“With the amount of games in a short amount of time, you have to swap, exchange and be adaptable in different formations,” Hoilett pointed out. “And we’re fortunate enough to have that depth in our squad in each position, and fortunate to have the quality, as well. It’s exciting for Canada, it’s exciting for the nation.”

Hoilett added: “Everybody’s fighting for each and every one of us, and for each other, and it’s exciting. Everybody comes in here with high spirits, and that brotherhood culture pushes us through games. You can see that when we face adversity, we stick together as a group and it pushes us to get the best out of each and one of us.”

“I think we’ve got a lot of players who are hungry to have that opportunity, and to take that limelight,” Herdman also noted. 

Up Next; Canada vs Honduras, Thursday, January 27th, 2022, 17:05 PDT, 20:05 EDT (Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula)

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer

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