The CanMNT took on the USMNT in a crucial World Cup qualifying match on Sunday, and they came out on top in a battle of two long-time rivals, picking up a massive 2-0 win. Here’s what stood out from that one.
In a battle of best-on-best, they found a way to stand the tallest.
Yet, it was just another important victory in a long line of them for the CanMNT, who continued to roll on Sunday with a big 2-0 win over their longtime rivals, the USMNT, in World Cup qualifying.
Heading into the game, many would’ve to see Canada just to come through the game with a good performance and maybe a point, but as they’ve done all qualifying cycle, they instead blew those expectations out of the water with a massive performance.
In a battle of the top two teams in the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, as Canada and the US entered this game 1-2 in the standings, Canada found a way to not only cement their status as the top team in the region with the win, but did so with a performance that sent a message to everyone else that dares to face them right now – they’re here to play.
Despite missing their best player, Alphonso Davies, and one of their most important ones, Stephen Eustaquio, Canada just reminded people of what they can do as a team, and the result reflected that.
But that’s just been the story of this World Cup qualifying run for Canada.
The best story in global men’s soccer right now, their rise from a forgotten team in CONCACAF to now arguably being the team to beat in the region in just a few years is beyond remarkable, and with each game like this one, the story only seems to get better.
“We’re really proud of them,” Canadian head coach, John Herdman, said after the game. “That was a tough, tough test, a really tough test.”
And now, thanks to that, it’s going to be hard to imagine this Canadian team being anywhere other than Qatar later this year, when the 2022 World Cup kicks off in the country in November. It might’ve been hard to see that coming when this cycle started, but it’s really starting to become a reality now, with results like this being why.
So while it might not have been Canada’s cleanest game, nor their most dominant performance, it was just the perfect performance for what was required for the occasion, as they came into the match with the right mindset, and executed their game plan to a tee.
As they continue their unlikely run towards Qatar, it was the sort of performance that will be looked back upon quite fondly in the future, but that’s just become the new normal for this team, who seems to want to break every ceiling and door that gets put in front of them.
“We want the world to respect Canada,” Canadian goalkeeper, Milan Borjan, said after the game.
And when looking back at this US game, this is a great example of that, as they just found a way to overcome what was put against them on the field to instead keep focused on the game itself, and they were rewarded for their efforts with a well-deserved win.
Larin gets the party started early:
To start the game, everything felt perfect. The sun was shining, the cold wasn’t too bad, and the crowd was loud, making it a great day for soccer.
And Canada seemed to feed off that early. As soon as they came out of the tunnel for the National Anthems, they seemed up for the occasion, clearly focused and ready for what they needed to do.
So in a sense, it maybe shouldn’t have been all that surprising to see them come out flying, more than up for this big chance to pick up a massive win over their rivals.
They launched themselves into every tackle, passed the ball with purpose, and just moved as a unit, allowing them to show their guests what they’d be up for on the afternoon.
Thanks to that, they were then able to get to dreamland early on, doing something that they’ve only done 3 other times this Octo – score inside the first 25 minutes of the game, as they found their moment of glory in just the 7th minute.
Off of a soft goal kick from the US’s Matt Turner, Canada pounced, as they were able to react to the ball holding up in the wind that is known to occupy Tim Hortons Field. Then, from there, they quickly brought it down and fizz the ball around, as Jonathan Osorio first played it to Cyle Larin, and then Larin was able to then play a quick ball over to Jonathan David, who in one touch, then found an onrushing Larin behind the American defence.
From there, Larin did what he does best, and that’s to bury the ball into the back of the net, as he faced down the US’s Matt Turner, gave him the eyes, found the side netting, and wheeled off in celebration.
And it was a massive goal for Canada, too.
Of course, any goal is important, but given the fact that they were at home, in front of a raucous crowd, and facing off against a US team that has typically struggled on the road compared to at home, it was exactly the sort of start that they needed.
And sensing that, Larin stepped up, but that’s just been the story of his World Cup qualification cycle so far. With that goal, his 12th this cycle, he not only extended his lead atop the overall CONCACAF goalscoring charts, he also regained his lead of the Octo golden boot race (he has 5), and climbed up into a tie for 2nd in the overall World Cup qualifying golden boot race globally.
Not only that, he also broke a key record with the tally, too, as he became the all-time CanMNT top goalscorer with his 23 goals, just showing how big that goal really was on so many fronts.
Yet, all of that just reflects how good Cyle Larin has been since this qualifying cycle kicked off back in March of 2021, as it just feels like every time he shoots the ball these days, it has a strong chance of ending up in the back of the net.
Even as he’s dealt with all sorts of ups and downs in his club form for Besiktas, where he’s dealt with injury, COVID and increased rotation to start this 21/22 season after a dominant 20/21 campaign, he’s stayed consistent every time he’s put on the Canadian colours, with this game just being an example of that.
Sometimes, to win games, you need your game-breakers to come up with a big moment right when you need it most, and in this case, Larin was more than happy to oblige with that request.
US tries to wrestle back control:
After such an early goal, however, it does tend to lead to an interesting conundrum – how do you approach the game?
If you’re the team that scores, do you keep your foot on the gas pedal? Sit back a bit? Somewhere in between?
Or how about if you’re the team that gets scored on. Do you just go for an equalizer right away? Do you slowly try to ramp things up to try and build some momentum? Do you just keep on doing what you’re doing?
And interestingly, after the goal, Canada chose to sit back a bit, while the US started to slowly ramp up the pressure, which made for a cagey rest of the first half.
It made sense for both teams to do so, as Canada did have a bit of a shorthanded roster, while the US probably wanted to avoid opening themselves up too early to the Canadian counter-attack, but it then turned the match into a sort of chess match.
Which, thanks to that, that allowed the US to slowly grow into the game. They weren’t able to create any big chances, as Canada’s backline was quite solid, but there were several flashes where you just felt that the US was close to some sort of breakthrough, but they just needed to execute.
And after a flurry of half-chances leading up to it, they found that big moment in the 42nd minute, too.
After a nice bit of pressure, where they were able to get a few set pieces in dangerous areas, they nearly connected on one of those, a corner, where they found a leaping Weston McKennie right in the box, and he connected with the ball perfectly, sending the ball towards goal.
But then, up stepped Milan Borjan. Even though the ball seemed destined to go into the goal, no one told Borjan that, as he lept high up to throw his hand at it, and he made contact, just tipping the ball onto the crossbar and out, keeping the game tied.
It was a game-changing stop, no doubt, not only for how he did it, but at the time it came, too, as right before the half, a US goal would have completely changed the momentum in the game right at a crucial moment.
Instead, though, it left Canada in a great position as they entered the second half, still in control of their destiny, even if their control on said destiny didn’t feel as such.
Crowd makes a difference in late push:
But even despite holding on for that moment, with 45 minutes still left to play, you just knew that something was still to come from the US.
Down 1-0, it wasn’t as if a tall mountain awaited them, so you just knew that they had to fashion up something, so it was up to Canada to match that.
And match that did they ever in the 2nd half. Even as the US pushed, Canada bent but didn’t break, holding on tight right to the dear end.
Yet, as the game wore on, you could sense that the Canadian legs were starting to give out as they reached the 65th minute. And you could hardly blame them, as they’d put in a shift up to that point.
But then, the home field advantage really started to kick in.
It had been loud all game, starting when the team arrived by bus around 90 minutes before the game, and it kicked up a notch when both teams came out the tunnel before the game, but as the game wore on, the fans seemed to find a new level of noise with each action.
“The walk-in was the best atmosphere I’ve seen from the fans, it was the first time where I really felt like I was living in a football country,” Herdman said of the fans before the game.
“It helped a lot,” Canada’s Sam Adekugbe added. “We knew that we had a tough game coming up, and the fans were tremendous, not only during the game, but before it, too”
And as Canada really started to settle in for their late push, the crowd somehow kicked things into overdrive.
So as the 11 Canadian players bunkered down and faced down the late US push, they knew that every block, every tackle and every clearance would be met by a wave of support, and that really seemed to give them a lift.
But that’s just another sign of the shift that we’ve seen from the Canadian faithful recently. The Canadian fans have always been a loyal bunch, of course, having lived through all sorts of emotions over the past few decades, but with every home game that Canada has played this Octo, they’ve seemed to find a way to outdo themselves, and this game is no exception.
It’s no coincidence that through 10 games this Octo, Canada has the best home record in the Octo, with 5 wins and 1 draw in 6 matches, as their home support has really become a big asset in these games.
With every win, or big moment on the pitch, it often feels like Canada is getting closer and closer to becoming a soccer nation, but it’s also important to note that this shift in support for the National Team is just as important, and Herdman recognized as much after the game.
“I’ve seen nothing like it,” Herdman praised. “It’s something we’ve all dreamed of.”
Canadian full backs continue to impress:
And having reached the end of the game, narrowly hanging on by the tip of their fingers, Canada then finished things off in style.
Having done all of the hard work to get to that point, you just hoped that they wouldn’t throw it all away at the end, especially when you saw the US come so close to equalizing through some decent chances, including a Paul Arriola bicycle kick with mere minutes to go, but Canada put that to rest deep into extra time.
Fittingly, too, it all happened thanks to 2 players who came up huge for Canada throughout the 90 minutes, Alistair Johnston and Sam Adekugbe, Canada’s 2 full backs on the afternoon.
First, the big moment came from Canada’s right back, Johnston, with around 30 minutes to go. It might not have directly led to the finishing act in extra time, no, but man, was it ever important.
In a 1v1 with the US’s Brendan Aaronson, who has been one of the best players in CONCACAF throughout the Octo, with the score still 1-0, Aaronson decided to go to his trick bag of moves, and looked sure to get around Johnston and through on goal, where you’d expect him to bury the ball.
And then he did just that, hopping over Johnston and in on goal.
Except, he didn’t have the ball with him, as despite being at the edge of his own penalty box, Johnston had decided to go to ground for a challenge, and he got all ball, denying what could’ve been a massive goal, and keeping his team alive.
Thanks to that, which was probably the best US chance other than the late Arriola attempt, it all but ensured that Canada would be able to hang on to a win, making it a key moment in the game.
And that then allowed Canada’s left back, Adekugbe, to seal the game in the 95th minute.
After having seemingly covered every blade of turf on the afternoon, he had just enough energy to cover some more right at the death, when he latched onto a nice long ball and slipped behind the US defence, where he looked up, picked his spot, and buried his first-ever goal for Canada.
Not only was it a fantastic goal, one worthy of a first tally, but it was a huge one, too, as it confirmed to the crowd and those watching that Canada would leave this game victorious, with their crown still in their back pocket.
Yet, the fact that two of the biggest moments in the second half from Canadian players came from Adekugbe and Johnston only feels fitting, especially given how they’ve grown into integral parts of this team.
Before 2021, not many knew the pair, but they changed that last year, as they became key players in Herdman’s system. They play 2 different roles, as Johnston is more of a defensive stopper who switches between full back and centre back, while Adekugbe has more of a free, swashbuckling two-way role down the left hand side as a full back and wing back, but they’re both very crucial to how this Canadian team plays.
They might not stand out much on TV at times, as Johnston typically plays the sort of under-the-radar defence that goes underappreciated by many, while Adekugbe does a lot of important dirty work on and off the ball to help Canada both in and out of possession, which makes them harder to get their due praise.
But that’s changing as of late, as fans really got to know them after their performances in some of Canada’s big games in the fall, and after a game like this one, they’ll be sure to become household names for many.
And that’s part of the reason why this Canadian team has been as successful as they are as of late. While their stars have come up big, especially offensively, their defence is the reason why they’re where they are today, and the efforts of the likes of Adekugbe and Johnston have gone a long way towards helping them become one of the best defensive teams in the region these past 12 months.
But while there were a lot of impressive individual performances to highlight across the board, it’s also worth noting how Canada’s collective set-up really made a big difference in their ability to leave with all 3 points, as they put up another tactical masterclass.
It might not have felt like that’d happen heading into the game, especially when they came out with what looked like a 3-4-3 with a midfield pivot of Mark Anthony Kaye and Jonathan Osorio, but thanks to some key tweaks, Canada were able to overcome the fact that they started two more attack-minded midfielders who look best in a midfield trio in a double-pivot against one of the best midfields in the region.
And the key was that they played super compact without the ball, closing down all space in between the lines. In their usual 4-4-2, which they tend to defend with, they made the small change of making it more of a narrow 4-4-2, instead of a wide 4-4-2.
That was crucial, as against a midfield trio such as the one that the US was employing of Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah, playing a double-pivot can almost be a death wish in most cases, but Canada knew that if they could play in a more narrow formation, that would make a big difference.
So it meant shifting your wide players in that 4-4-2, Tajon Buchanan and Richie Laryea, a little more narrow than you would’ve usually liked, sacrificing their offence at times, but thanks to that they were able to disrupt the US’s midfield a lot, especially in the final third.
It wasn’t pretty at times, as it allowed the US to keep 64% possession, but they didn’t do as much with it as they would’ve liked, often finding themselves frustrated when they ran into that Canadian wall in midfield.
And then with the defensive side of their game sorted out, Canada just tried to wait for the perfect opportunity, and made the most of it.
It might not have been the way they preferred to go about it, as they weren’t able to keep possession as much as they like to in games, but much like they did in Honduras the last game, they recognized that sitting deep would be the best way for them to defend, and they’re comfortable playing in transition.
So even if it might not have been a tiki-taka masterclass, per se, it was still a very efficient and beautiful tactical performance in its own right, and it was just the latest example of why this flexible Canadian team has been able to grind out results this Octo, no matter the opponent or location.
In The Mixer:
Otherwise, here are some bits and bobs that stood out from the game:
-The attendance was not announced for this game, which is especially strange given that it felt and looked like Canada had more than 12 000 fans in the stadium. It at least sounded like there were more, which is full credit to those who were there, and Canada will have no complaint about that, as it certainly helped them keep their home-field advantage.
-The Stephen Eustaquio mind games before this match were certainly something. Full credit to Canada, though, who leaned into the CONCACAF shenanigans in terms of revealing his status for the game, and while it might not have had much of an influence on the result, it certainly must have played into the minds of the Americans. It’s those sorts of details that can make a big difference in games like this.
-Milan Borjan deserves a shout for how good he’s been this window. 2 clean sheets, some massive saves, and just overall strong leadership at the back, as he’s played a big role in both of Canada’s victories, and deserves praise for that. A key leader on and off the field for this Canadian team, he’s played a big role in where they’re at today, and this game was just another example of that.
-And speaking of Borjan, he needs to find a way to wear his sweatpants in Central America. It needs to be done.
So now, for Canada, once they finish celebrating their result from this game, the focus will now shift to finishing this window a perfect 3 for 3, as they’ll take on El Salvador away on Wednesday.
It will be a tough game, no doubt, but with El Salvador’s position in the table, as they currently sit 7th out of 8 teams as of writing, Canada will be favourites to get the job done in that one, especially after results like this one.
And if they’re able to do that, they can not only potentially book their spot in the top 4 this Octo, confirming that they’ll at least participate in the intercontinental playoff to get to Qatar, if they don’t qualify straight there, first, but with a win there, they’ll also set up the possibility of booking that qualification early in the next window.
Because of that, it’d be massive for Canada to finish off this so-far dream window with a 3rd victory, allowing them to head into March with a bit of comfort, knowing that they can finish the job that they’ve started earlier than everyone else, allowing them to shift their focus elsewhere.
But no matter what happens in that game, one thing is for sure – this Canadian team is doing things that hasn’t really ever been seen from them before, and this game was just another example of that, providing another important memory on the road towards Qatar.
“This win, it’s something that down the line, we won’t forget,” Canada’s Jonathan Osorio happily noted after the game.
Up Next: Canada vs El Salvador, Tuesday, February 2nd, 2022, 18:00 PDT, 21:00 EDT (Estadio Cuscatlan, San Salvador)
Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Twitter