The Final 3rd: The CanMNT are looking to extend lead atop Octo and cap so far perfect January window in trip to El Salvador

The CanMNT are heading to El Salvador for another crucial World Cup qualifier on Wednesday. Here is our preview ahead of that one. 

It’s a chance to cap off what has been a near-dream January window. 

Heading into this 3-game window, it felt like the CanMNT would do well just to get out with anything above 4 points, but now, with 6 points out of a possible 6 in their back pocket after wins against Honduras and the US, they can now realistically finish this camp with a perfect 9 out of 9 points if they can find a win against El Salvador on Wednesday. 

Even without Alphonso Davies, their star player, who was ruled out of this window as he recovers from myocarditis, Canada have found a way to keep the good times rolling so far, finding a way to step up in his absence. 

And thanks to that, it’s put them right on the precipice of a World Cup. With just 4 games remaining in the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, Canada leads the way with 22 points in 10 games (2.2/game), 4 points ahead of the 2 next best teams, Mexico and the US, who sit tied with 18 points. 

So now, heading into this 11th matchday of the Octo, not only can Canada extend an impressive 6-game win streak that they’re currently riding, but it is now mathematically possible for them to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, snapping a 36-year drought that dates all the way back to 1986. 

It’s a bit of a longshot in this window, as it would require nearly every other result going their way on Wednesday, but that it’s even a possibility this early on in the Octo is huge, giving them a chance to lock things down early and focus on other important pieces of business. 

Yet, that’s just a sign of how things have gone for Canada this Octo. After a blip in the opening game, where they drew a now-eliminated Honduras 1-1, they’ve done everything asked of them and more in the 9 games they’ve played since. 

Away draws in the US, Mexico and Jamaica? Check. Home wins against El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico and the US? Check. A road win against Honduras? Check. 

Knowing that somewhere between 1.5 to 2 points per game over the 14 matches would be more than enough to qualify automatically as the top 3 team, if not keeping them alive through the 4th-placed intercontinental playoff, their 2.2 point per game pace is well above that for now, showing how efficient they’ve been. 

So now, heading into El Salvador, it’s imperative that they don’t let up now. They’re already assured of finishing at least top 5 in the Octo, and it’s likely that they will wrap up a top 4 spot by the end of this window, but now, the goal has shifted from making the playoffs to qualifying automatically for Qatar.

After all of the work that they’ve done up to this point, it would be a shame to slip up now, but given the focus that they’ve shown throughout this run, it would be hard to imagine them doing so at this point. 

But with Mexico, the US and 4th-placed Panama still not far behind them, without mentioning the forgotten but still lurking Costa Rica in 5th, it’s imperative that Canada doesn’t forget to peek at the rearview mirror as they continue to drive forward.

So that means taking what they’ve shown as of late down to El Salvador, where a stiff test awaits in the form of the upstart Los Cuzcatlecos, who are unlikely to qualify at this point, but have been a great story this cycle. 

Historically, it’s never been an easy place to play, as some teams have learned this cycle, so for Canada, it’s something to be wary of, as they look to finish this already strong window off on a perfect note. 

What to expect on Wednesday: 

So coming into this match, it’s important that Canada doesn’t get too complacent after their recent victories, as this El Salvador team is certainly capable of surprising. 

Heading into this Octo as one of the projected bottom 2 finishers, they’ve been anything but a doormat this final round, currently sitting in 6th with 9 points, still mathematically in the hunt for at least 2 more matchdays. 

And that’s important to note for Canada. Unlike a team that is already eliminated, this El Salvador side will still have the belief that they can squeak into the top 4, and at home, in front of a hostile home crowd, their performance will likely reflect that. 

Plus, as their record has shown this Octo, they’re a team that isn’t afraid of the occasion. They might have just 2 wins and 3 draws to go along with 5 losses, but 3 of those losses were all by one goal, with the other two losses being a 3-0 defeat to Canada and a 2-0 defeat to Mexico, both top 4 teams. 

And of their other results, 1 of their came over Panama, and 1 of their draws came against the US, which shows that they’ve been able to hang with the big dogs of this final round on their day. 

So don’t be fooled by their record, as the fact that they’ve allowed just 11 goals in 10 games (just 6 in the 8 games that weren’t the Canada or Mexico losses) should give an idea of how tough they are to break down. They might not score much, sitting with just 6 goals in 10 games, but with how they defend, 1 break might be all they’ll need at the other end, anyway. 

Because of that, it feels safe to assume that Canada will need to expect a tough match on Wednesday, especially at the Estadio Cuscatlan, known for having more of the intense atmospheres in the region. With the fans almost sitting on top of the pitch with how the stadium is designed, which is sort of like a cauldron, there have been several instances of objects being thrown at players this cycle, which when you combine that with the crowd noise, the humid weather and the pitch, can make for a slog of a game. 

That’s reflected in the fact that El Salvador’s record at home this Octo consists of 1 win, 3 draws and 1 loss, having scored 2 goals for, and conceded just 3 against (2 of those coming in the Mexico loss). 

The good news for Canada? They’ve already proven to be resilient in atmospheres like this one, such as in other historically tough places like Mexico and Honduras, but at the same time, given what’s at stake, this feels like this could be their toughest battle yet. 

So while Canada might have the edge on paper in terms of talent and depth, with El Salvador’s head coach, Hugo Perez, continuing to get the most out of this team, it won’t be an easy game, meaning that it’s going to need to be all hands on deck for John Herdman’s side. 

Canada celebrates the second of 2 goals in their road win over Honduras last week (Canada Soccer)

Some reinforcements come in, one departs:

And speaking of all hands on deck, it’s important to note that Canada will be getting back some key reinforcements ahead of this match. 

Firstly, it looks like they’ll get back midfielder, Stephen Eustaquio, who missed the last two games as he recovered from COVID. He was always going to be out for the Honduras game, so it wasn’t much of a surprise, but there was some optimism that he’d return for the US game a few days later. 

Plus, as we got close to game day, that looked to be the case, with several reports emerging that he made it to camp, but it turned out to all be a ruse, as Canada clouded his availability to keep the US on his toes. 

The good news, though, is that this time he’s in El Salvador for real, as confirmed by both Herdman and his club, FC Porto, paving the way for Canada to welcome back their midfield general. 

It’ll be interesting to see how fit he is after picking up COVID, but it’s worth noting that he last played less than 2 weeks ago, which is better than what most players on this roster had under their belts before this camp, and he managed to get a training session in with his new Porto teammates this past weekend, hopefully giving him an edge. 

Otherwise, Canada will also welcome back another key piece in the midfield in Atiba Hutchinson, who was left out of the squad on Sunday. 

At first, it looked like a rest thing, as Hutchinson went 90 minutes in Honduras last week, but then it turned out that it was actually for a suspension, as he had picked up a yellow card in that game. It left most people confused, as he hadn’t gotten any other yellows in qualifying, but it seems like he picked up a yellow after Canada’s win over Mexico in November, where there was a decent brawl after the match. 

So while it opens up questions to how that yellow card went unreported (and if there are any other yellow cards that we missed out on?), either way, we now know that Hutchinson is fit, rested and ready to go, giving Canada a boost in midfield. 

Otherwise, those two won’t be the only reinforcements that Canada got ahead of this game, as they also welcomed Zachary Brault-Guillard into camp on Tuesday, as he joined the team in El Salvador from CF Montreal’s camp in Florida. 

It was a bit of a curious move, as while Brault-Guillard would’ve made a lot of sense to be included in the squad in the first place, especially given Canada’s thin right back depth, but having made it through the first two games, you would’ve thought they’d be good for the third. 

But Herdman obviously doesn’t feel that’s the case, making some wonder if there could be a knock or injury at play, although nothing was announced. To be fair, after the Eustaquio scenario, that could also be a sign of mind games not to announce anything, but even then, that would feel a bit extreme. 

Either way, having Brault-Guillard in as a depth player is a good move, as he’s had some great flashes for Canada, and can give them another option off the bench in this one. 

Lastly, though, it’s worth noting that one player will be out for sure, and that’s Steven Vitoria, who picked up a suspension for yellow card accumulation in the US game, his 2nd such suspension this Octo. 

It won’t be a big loss, though, because while Vitoria is a massive part of this Canadian defence, he’s already gone 180 minutes this window, and is yet to play all the minutes in a window, so this is a good chance for him to reset his yellow counter and return fresh for March. 

Plus, with Canada calling up a bigger centre back pool than usual, this is a great chance for the likes of Doneil Henry, Derek Cornelius and Scott Kennedy to get a look, which is never a bad thing given how hard they’ve been knocking on the door to get a chance behind usual starters Vitoria, Alistair Johnston and Kamal Miller. 

Last time out: 

Otherwise, it’s interesting to note that this will be the first Canadian visit to the Estadio Cuscatlan in almost 7 years, as they last headed to the country for World Cup qualifying in 2015, giving an idea of how long it’s been since they’ve had a game like this in El Salvador. 

The El Salvador team they faced back then was a lot different, as they’d go on to finish last in Canada’s group in that round, which was the one before the final round, which was still the ‘Hexagonal’ back then, but so was that Canadian team, who is hardly recognizable compared to this one. 

And in fact, Canada’s visit down south that time around proved costly, too, as a 0-0 draw against an El Salvador team that picked up just 2 points in 6 games was arguably one of the reasons why Canada missed out on qualifying to the Hex by 1 point to Honduras. 

So while both teams are in much different positions than they were back then, definitely for the better, it’s an important lesson of why Canada will want to find a way to get maximum points out of this game, no matter how difficult the occasion, as it could come back to haunt them. 

With 6 players who featured in the Canadian squad for that game still kicking around in Milan Borjan, Atiba Hutchinson, Cyle Larin, Junior Hoilett, Samuel Piette and Sam Adekugbe, they’ll certainly be reminding their teammates of what to expect, as well as the importance of grabbing all 3 points. 

So while they’ll feel confident about their road form after slaying their Honduras demons last week, they’ll look to not get overconfident about this game, using those thoughts of 2015 as a reminder of why they’ll want to head home with full points in the bag.  

Count it up: 

Lastly, though, it’s worth outlining what’s at stake in this game for Canada, who as mentioned earlier, can actually clinch their spot to Qatar in this game, becoming the first CONCACAF nation to do so. 

Already assured of at least a top 5 finish, it would take some interesting math to now clinch a top 3 spot with 3 games to go, but with it being CONCACAF, never say never. 

So to clinch, they need to win, and then have the following happen: 

-The US loses to Honduras

-Panama loses to Mexico

-Costa Rica loses or draws Jamaica

And they’d be into the 2022 World Cup. 

It’s unlikely, as the US are at home to an already-eliminated Honduras, but given that the game there will be played in temperatures below -20, it’s not impossible. Otherwise, Panama is a shout to lose, though, given that they’ll be away to Mexico, while Costa Rica is away to Jamaica, also making a draw/loss more likely, so the other two are a bit more realistic. 

Elsewhere, if Canada’s Qatari dreams aren’t realized, it’s also worth noting that they can also book a top 4 spot (at least assuring them of the playoff for now) in either of these scenarios, where: 

-Canada beats El Salvador

-Costa Rica loses or draws Jamaica AND/OR the US loses to Honduras

Or

-Canada draws El Salvador

-Costa Rica loses to Jamaica

So it’ll be interesting to keep an eye on either of those scenarios heading into this game, as while clinching outright will be a longshot, it would be nice to see them at least book a top 4 spot. 

Either way, with how this Canadian team has been playing, you’d also ideally want them to push towards being a pot 3 team for the World Cup, which they can be a possibility if they remain undefeated in the last 4 games, but first you just want to get the ticket to the big dance punched first, especially given the nature of this region. 

And if all goes well, they can do just that on Wednesday, or at least get 1 win away, so there’s no reason why they can’t shoot for that, no matter how tough the venue or opponent. 

Up Next: Canada vs El Salvador, Wednesday, February 2nd, 2022, 18:00 PST, 21:00 EST (Estadio Cuscatlan, San Salvador)

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer

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