The CanMNT wrapped up a World Cup qualifying window to remember with a 2-0 win over El Salvador on Wednesday. Here’s what stood out to us in that one.
It’s starting to smell like Qatar.
They might not have been able to mathematically clinch their spot in the 2022 World Cup on Wednesday, but the CanMNT aren’t that far off being able to do so after they picked up a big 2-0 victory over El Salvador, putting them on the precipice of the big dance with just 3 games remaining in the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers.
Still sitting atop the region through 11 out of 14 games, 4 points clear of the next best team(s), the US and Mexico, Canada has been the team to beat as of late, entering this game on a 5-win streak, which they extended to 6 after this victory.
And now, thanks to that, they’re just 1 win away from booking their spot at the World Cup later this year, allowing them to snap a 36-year drought in the process. They still haven’t fully clinched a spot, and will have to be careful to not throw everything away now, but after this magical window, belief in the team is at an all-time high, and you can hardly blame people for feeling that way.
Just take what they showed in this 3-game window against Honduras, the US and El Salvador as an example of why. Despite missing their best player, Alphonso Davies, as he recovers from myocarditis, and with half of their roster in preseason mode due to the timing of this window, they still found a way to pick up 9 out of a possible 9 points, just rolling along as the hits kept on coming.
Missing Stephen Eustaquio for the first 2 games as he recovered from COVID? No worries. Missing Atiba Hutchinson for the US game due to a suspension? Not a problem. Missing 3 players and some staff members in the last game due to COVID? Didn’t miss a beat.
Despite all of the obstacles, which included 2 tough away trips to Central America, sandwiching a tough home game in the icy cold of Hamilton against their rivals from down south, they took the hits on the chin, delivering back a few of their own with laser-accurate efficiency.
And thanks to that, they were able to pick up a trio of 2-0 wins, of which now has them on the precipice of a place that they haven’t been back to in far too long.
“We’re all knackered,” Canadian head coach John Herdman admitted after the game. “We’re happy we picked up the points, and we’re steps closer to Qatar, as this one was tricky.”
But no matter the level of the challenge, this Canadian side seemed to rise to it, and this latest game against El Salvador was no exception.
After a wild day, they put all of that aside in time for kick-off, and just went out and meant business, finding a way to close out the victory with remarkable efficiency.
So when looking back at this match, there’s a lot that stands out, as it was just a perfect way to cap off a perfect window for Canada, putting them closer than ever to a goal they ambitiously set out just a few years ago, yet is now 1 game away from becoming a reality.
“It means everything,” Canada’s captain, Atiba Hutchinson, said after the game. “It means everything, this team, this program, we’ve gone through a lot.”
“We’ve gone through a lot of rough times and heartbreaking results, and for it to be going the way that it is going right now, we’re a fearless team, we’ve got a lot of confidence, and we’re just expressing ourselves right now.”
A real taste of CONCACAF:
Before they got a taste of victory for dinner, they had to endure the appetizers, which unfortunately came in the form of a tough away atmosphere.
It was unsure how the crowd for this game would look, as there appeared to be restrictions on attendance, but either way, you’d know that those who would make it out would bring the noise.
Even as the team went through an unlikely hiccup in the day, one that nearly saw the El Salvadorian players refuse to take the field in protest of their federation, you knew that if they’d go out and play, their fans would give them their full support.
And that was evident as soon as the ball kicked off. Canada had faced some tough atmospheres in this Octo, so it wasn’t anything new, but it just seemed like these fans had turned things up another notch, bringing an almost party-like atmosphere to the game.
From intense booing every time Canada was on the ball, to a festival of ‘Olés’ every time El Salvador completed a pass, they did their best to unnerve Canada, even throwing a few projectiles at the Canadian players.
Along with the state of the pitch, which can best be described as murky, and the humidity of the evening, it was overall a pretty tough experience for Canada as they settled into the game.
“It was one of the toughest places I’ve ever been to,” Canada’s Stephen Eustaquio admitted after. “The grass was hard, the environment was hard, the weather was very hot, the fans made a lot of noise was everywhere.”
Despite that, though, Canada didn’t seem too unfazed by that. In the past, that hostile crowd might’ve pressured them into changing how they play, but instead, they just stuck to their game plan and tried to bring the game to El Salvador.
And they succeeded in doing that in the first half. Other than a late patch at the end of the 45, Canada seemed to be the team more intent on grabbing control of the game, making them seem like the team that would grab the opening tally.
No matter how tough the crowd was, or the state of the grass, that didn’t seem to bother them, as they just stuck with the business-like approach that had served them so well up to this point.
But that’s this new Canadian team.
For all of the talk of the talent in this team, the biggest change has arguably been in their mentality in big games, and as they settled into this one, that appeared to give them a clear edge as they tried to break down their resilient opponents.
“You’re coming into a real CONCACAF environment,” Herdman said of El Salvador, “This is a palace where it was difficult, you got that sense on arrival, it’s part of the adventure, we all wanted that type of game.”
Atiba Hutchinson finds unlikely opener:
But then, as the game stretched on, Canada was starting to lose the early control that they’d done so well to establish as the start.
Especially after the half time break, it felt like they were losing their legs while El Salvador were just starting to find theirs, and that led to the tide starting to turn in the favour of the hosts.
And that was really starting to be felt about 15 minutes into the half. Not only were the chances mounting up in quantity, but were really starting to improve in quality, as well, giving Canada plenty to worry about.
That nearly all came to a head right after the 60th minute, where there was a scramble in the box where El Salvador had a glorious shot blocked by Scott Kennedy, and then a penalty shout after a rash tackle by Tajon Buchanan on the subsequent rebound, but both ultimately led to nothing.
It was a sign, though, of what El Salvador could do if they found the right moment, so for Canada, it was important that they find some new life, soon.
And then that came in the 66th minute, all courtesy of a Canadian soccer legend, who scored a goal for the ages.
After a great run down the flank by Cyle Larin, who did well to find some space out wide, he looked up and spotted an onrushing Hutchinson, who had somehow managed to push all the way up from his usual spot in defensive midfield, finding himself in a great spot in the box.
Larin then did well to find him, and Hutchinson got a good shot off, but it’d be saved nicely by El Salvador’s Kevin Carabantes, who was only starting this game after the usual starter Mario Gonzalez got injured, just managed to get a leg to the attempt.
But then, things got really weird.
After the save, the ball hopped up, where it then bounced off of El Salvador’s Eriq Zavaleta, seemingly destined to go out for a corner.
Instead, though, it then hit the back of Hutchinson, who had fallen on the goal line after the play, and then hopped up in the air, over Carabantes and trickled into the net, giving Canada a goal.
And it was a massive one for Canada. It might not have been the way they drew it up, as it almost seemingly took a divine touch to find its way in, but it came at a time where they needed it most, as they seemed close to potentially falling behind in the game.
But with this goal now in their back pocket, they’d regained belief that they could emerge from the Cuscatlan with not just a point, but all 3, giving them a win that’d all but confirm their participation in Qatar later this year.
And in a sense, it was so fitting that the goal came off of Hutchinson’s back. Having carried the team on there for so long, even though some lean years, it’s nice to see him finally get a chance to participate on a magical qualifying run like this one.
“It’s obviously a lucky goal,” Hutchinson admitted with a laugh afterwards, “But it crossed the line, and in football, sometimes you need that luck, so it was great for us, and great for the result.”
Based on his comments after the last cycle ended, he wasn’t even supposed to be here, but yet he’s still out there, not that far off from turning 39, still bossing the midfield for this team.
In a way only he can, he’s ensuring that his last hurrah is one to remember, playing a big part in this push, so in a sense, making it perfect that a back that has done so much for a nation got a chance to play a starring role on such a memorable moment.
Before, these sorts of moments were just a dream, but now, they’re becoming a reality, as Canada is not only finding itself in these sorts of big games, but thriving in them, too.
“It means a lot,” Hutchinson said of this run, “It means a lot, it shows that we can now go up and play.”
“This team is fearless,” he added. “There’s nobody that we fear now, we know that we can go up and play against anybody in this region.”
Milan Borjan, Jonathan David cap off perfect window for Canada:
And then with that goal out of the way, Canada looked poised to cruise to the finish line, where they’d cap the game off in style.
After a quiet 20 minutes, where they just mostly looked to keep El Salvador as far as their net as possible, they looked to have it all sealed up in extra time, especially having managed their way through the first 2 minutes of 4 added time minutes without too much worry.
But then, El Salvador woke up, which then called Canada’s Milan Borjan into action.
First, they came close in the 92nd minute, as Bryan Tamacas found himself in a bit of space in the box, but his shot would be saved quite comfortably by Borjan, who did well to read the shot.
And soon after, Borjan had his finest stop of the evening, as El Salvador’s Marvin Monterroza then had a look at goal from a good 40 yards out. It might not have looked dangerous at first, seemingly more of a cross than a shot, but it ended up carrying right towards the top corner, catching Borjan a bit off guard as he’d prepared for the cross.
But as he’s done all window for Canada, he found a way to just get his hand to it, palming it over the bar as he fell backwards, keeping out what could’ve been a massive goal for El Salvador right at the death.
Instead, they were left to wonder ‘what if?’, as Borjan’s magical hands seemed to stretch through time at that moment, breaking El Salvador’s will in the process.
So even though the hosts still theoretically had a minute left to play, they just seemed lost as the play resumed, and that allowed Jonathan David to cap the victory off in style.
Catching the El Salvador defence asleep on a sloppy throw-in, David found himself 1v1 with Carabantes from the half line in, and based on the form that Canada’s frontman is in, you’d back himself to score.
And score did he ever, as he waited patiently to draw Carabantes off his line before delicately dinking the ball over the goalkeeper and into the net, before wheeling off in celebration.
It was an ice-cool moment, yet the man they call the ‘Iceman’ had no problem delivering it once again, always one for the big moment.
He might be called the ‘Iceman’ due to the likely presence of ice in his veins, but it might also be due to the fact that time seems to freeze when he has the ball in front of goal, and that was fully on display on this goal.
You just knew where this ball was ending up as soon as he picked it up, and he made no mistake with that, capping off this game in style.
But it was that kind of window for David and Borjan. Across 3 games, of which David played an impressive 255 out of a possible 270, while Borjan (of course) played all 270, it feels like they really made the most of each of those minutes, playing a big role in Canada’s wins.
Yet, that feels kind of fitting to see in a sense, especially coming from someone the two players who lead the line at either end of the pitch.
From David’s dazzling footwork, his tireless work rate, along with his 2 goals and 1 assist up front, to Borjan’s big saves, calming moments and vocal leadership at the back, the pair seemed to bring stability to this Canadian team in these big games.
So to see them combine that magic to help Canada keep their late lead and then add to it only feels fitting, as it capped a window where the pair stepped up massively.
If anything, though, that’s just yet another sign of Canada’s growing depth, of which we see more of in each window, and the play of these two in this ‘sans-Davies’ window is one of many countless examples of that.
“It’s a new Canada,” Herdman said of his team’s performance, “When you look around the room, the statements that the players made at the front end, the mission was to be a new Canada, and we’re not new Canada unless you really pioneer in this period of time.”
“And we’re on track to really set ourselves up as a new Canada”
Tactically, it’s been a strong window for Canada. From their coherent and well-organized plan against Honduras, to a similar set-up against the US, Canada easily won the tactical battle in each of those matches, helping them pick up results.
Heading into this game, however, they faced a stiff challenge in the form of El Salvador’s Hugo Perez. Known as one of the stronger managers in CONCACAF as of late, he’s gotten a lot out of an El Salvador team that many had low expectations of, turning them into a well-oiled defensive machine.
So as Canada got set for this game, they made a bit of a change tactically, going from the 4-4-2/3-4-3 they’d rocked the last few games, switching to more of a true 4-3-3, one that sometimes morphed into a sort of 3-5-2/3-4-3.
It was a bit of a new change, as they haven’t used that formation much, but it was a smart one, as El Salvador was expected to sit deep and defend in numbers, making it important that Canada shore up their midfield and give themselves a bit of solidity there.
A sound plan, in theory, it didn’t work out as planned, though, at least on offence.
Why was that? Well with Liam Millar, Jonathan David and Junior Hoilett up front (left to right), and Jonathan Osorio playing as a #10 underneath them, the problem is that he, David and Hoilett often occupied the same spaces in the final third, making it easy for El Salvador to defend them.
When they spread out, as they did on a lovely chance in the first half that saw Osorio, Sam Adekgube and David link-up for Canada’s most dangerous opportunity in the first 45, it wasn’t a problem, but they just seemed to bunch up too often.
And with no Alistair Johnston on the field, who typically drops into a back 3 for Canada in possession, that often meant that one of Stephen Eustaquio or Atiba Hutchinson would have to drop to help create that 3, denying them of a chance to push up the pitch.
So that’s where Canada’s big change came.
Realizing where his team was struggling, Herdman then brought on Johnston, Tajon Buchanan and Cyle Larin in the 60th minute, switching to the 4-4-2 that Canada had played in earlier games, the one that would morph into more of a 3-4-3 in possession.
That proved to be a game-changer, because while it was theoretically quite similar to the set-up they’d employed earlier, having Johnston in the back 3 in possession made a world of difference, as it pushed Hutchinson and Eustaquio up the pitch.
In fact, it is no coincidence that less than 10 minutes after the change, Hutchinson had the ball in the net, as he certainly made the most of the freedom that the subs gave him.
So while it might have not been a change many expected, as it always felt like Canada would be best served rocking a 3-man midfield set-up against El Salvador, something they did to great success in the first game between the two teams back in September, the 4-4-2/3-4-3 ended up being the way to go.
With David dropping into midfield to join Hutchinson and Eustaquio, while the likes of Adekugbe, Richie Laryea and Buchanan ran free alongside them, and Larin roamed around up front, it just seemed to give Canada more fluidity in the attack, allowing them to grab the late goals.
But for all of the talk of what they did on offence, it’s worth shouting out the defence, which no matter what happened, kept strong and put together an overall masterful performance.
That was reflected in the fact that they allowed just 0.37 Expected Goals (xG) on just 7 shots (2 on target) in this game, which on the road, is a near-perfect defensive performance.
There were some hiccups, as El Salvador had an excellent penalty shout, and nearly caught Borjan at the end, but overall, Canada kept them out of the dangerous areas, and that’s reflected in the numbers.
Sitting deep in their usual defensive set-up, which was the 4-4-2, they continued to be the class of the region defensively, which continues to feel wild to type out, but with just 5 goals against now in 11 games, along with 6 clean sheets, it’s true right now.
So overall, while it might not have been the tactical domination we saw in the last two games, as it took some key in-game adjustments to help shape this performance, overall it was a good showing from Canada in this section, giving them a deserved result.
In The Mixer:
Elsewhere, here are some bits-and-bobs from this game:
-Shout out to Jonathan David for reaching 20 goals for Canada, in just his 27th game. Now, all of a sudden, he’s just 3 goals behind all-time top scorer, Cyle Larin (who of course broke the old mark this past weekend), which is quite impressive for David, who just turned 22. Have to imagine that we see these two pushing back and forth on the record for the considerable future based on how proficient they’ve been for Canada the past few years.
-Not a bad week for Milan Borjan in the Canada goal – 3 games, at least 1 clutch save in each game, and 3 clean sheets. And, of course, those sweatpants, even if they didn’t get a run in this game…
-Herdman says after the game that Lucas Cavallini, Cristian Gutierrez and Liam Fraser were unable to travel down for this game due to COVID. Hopefully they have a quick and speedy recovery and can get back to club soccer soon.
-Atiba Hutchinson just loves scoring against El Salvador, with both of his goals this round coming against them, both winners. Inevitable.
So now, Canada’s players will return to their clubs, where they’ll focus on the big games that lie ahead for them there, before returning to Les Rouges in March for the last 3-game window of the Octo.
And there, a stiff task awaits them. Not only can they book their spot in Qatar with a win, but they can also finish the cycle undefeated, and possibly even become a pot 3 team for the World Cup, with both of those things providing them with a potential psychological (undefeated) and sporting (pot 3) advantage.
Ahead of then, though, they’ll want to focus on staying in-form and healthy with their clubs, be it as they continue their seasons, or as they begin them, depending on where they play.
But based on what they’ve been able to accomplish for Canada, you just know that they’ll have Canada in the back of their minds, as they’ll be eager to return to this team and continue the good times they’ve enjoyed as a program.
On the road to Qatar, they’ve been through many ups-and-downs, but they’re now one final stretch away, and will look to make the most of that now, by continuing to do what they’ve done so far – win.
“We have to stay humble,” Herdman said. “We’re not there yet, we’re not there yet. We’re not at our target, either, that this team has set for themselves, we’ve still got a few more steps we need to take to really take it to where we want to get to.”
Up Next: Canada vs Costa Rica, Thursday, March 24th, 2022 (Time, Venue TBD)
Cover photo via: Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl