The CanMNT took on Costa Rica in CONCACAF World Cup qualification in San Jose on Thursday. Here’s our match report from that one.
They huffed, and puffed, but they just couldn’t blow the house down.
And with that, they had to delay their planned celebrations for another few days.
Facing off against a Costa Rican time fighting for their World Cup lives on Thursday, the CanMNT knew that a stiff test awaited them down in Central America for this one, as they continued their quest through the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers this week.
Knowing that they were oh so close to clinching a berth to the World Cup with the right result, with a win (and in some cases, even a draw or a loss) officially allowing them to book a ticket to Qatar, the mood was strong in the group as they got set for this match.
So far undefeated in the Octo, the only team in CONCACAF with that distinction, it just felt like Canada was destined to go out and finish the job on Thursday, and that confidence extended to the country as a whole.
But by doing that, they committed one of the big don’ts of this region – count Costa Rica out.
There’s a reason why the Ticos have made both of the last World Cups, and despite looking to have aged out of their ‘golden generation’ heading into this cycle, are still very much in the thick of the hunt right now.
And that was on full display in this game, as Costa Rica, in almost textbook fashion, went out and grabbed a gritty 1-0 win over a 10-men Canada, one that has given their World Cup hopes a big boost. Now up to 4th in the Octo, sitting in the intercontinental playoff spot, things look great for Costa Rica with 2 games to go, as they now control their own destiny once again after sitting outside the fight for most of this round.
For Canada, though, they’ll feel like it was an opportunity wasted. With the out-of-town scoreboard sort of playing in their favour, a draw would have qualified them for the World Cup, but instead, they’re left to wait for their next game to do that, a clash against Jamaica on Sunday.
At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with that for Canada. The only team still undefeated at this stage heading into this window, they were due a loss at some point, and considering that despite the sending off, they did everything but tie the game up, they can be proud with this performance.
Plus, luck be had it, while it stings not to have booked World Cup qualification in this game, they now get the chance to do so at home, in front of 33 000+ at Toronto’s BMO Field on Sunday.
So now, all Canada needs to do is pick up the pieces of this result, collect themselves, and focus on what lies ahead in that game. Result aside, they have a lot to be proud about in this game, and if they bring that same effort on Sunday, the spot in the World Cup will be booked with ease.
While they’ll feel that they could’ve done that in this game, instead, they found themselves on the wrong side of a memorable match, and that’s the reality of this region sometimes.
“Football is football,” Canadian head coach, John Herdman, noted afterwards. “You’re going to have to respond.”
He added: “You have to respond the next day, you have to respond the next two days, to get this team back home again and in perfect health, to play that home match.”
Intense atmosphere gives Costa Rica early edge:
But long before the dust settled on this chaotic match, you just had a feeling that it was going to be one to remember.
As soon as you stepped into the stadium, you could just feel that the atmosphere wrap around you and seep into your soul. Heck, you could feel it even before, as hours before the game, Costa Rican fans lined the streets outside the stadium, dancing, singing and just overall looking to bring a good vibe to the area.
Then, they really got loud when their team’s bus showed up, which they welcomed in style, bringing out a whole marching band, some smoke bombs, firecrackers and a whole symphony of other noisemakers to remind the Ticos of their ongoing support.
Afterwards, they then filed in and packed the venue as quickly as the lines would allow them to, making it a pretty full house by the time warm-ups rolled around, with fans even doing the wave more than an hour before the game.
Because of all that, it promised to be a special game for both sides.
On one side, there were the hosts, Costa Rica, who knowing how big this game was for them, knew that they had to find a way to use their crowd to their advantage, feeding off the energy that it can bring to a team.
And on the other, there was Canada, who as the road team, had the unique challenge of having to manage to find a way to play their game in such an atmosphere, having to be careful not to get drawn into the theatrics of the event,
“There’s no doubt, I’m sure that Costa Rica were buoyed by that (crowd),” Herdman said. “They were finding that extra gear to put that slide tackle in, I thought they were brilliant, they were in the zone tonight, played a really good, flowing style of football.”
But to give credit to Canada, they at least looked up for the task. They came out focused, and did well to look unfazed despite the tricks that the opposing crowd tried to throw at them.
At the same time, it was one thing to be ready for that, it’s a whole other to actually go out and live that, and this is where Canada really got thrown into the fire to start.
Instead of the passive, more defensive-minded Costa Rican side that they faced in Edmonton in the return match back in November, they got the high-octane, lightning out of a bottle Costa Rica, and that seemed to catch them by surprise to start.
But that’s just the nature of playing in this sort of game, as it was clear that Costa Rica were feeling the energy of their crowd, showing why it was discussed as a potential advantage leading into the game.
“The first 20 minutes, we were managing their pressure,” Herdman said. “We knew it was coming, you felt the intensity in the stadium.”
Canada grows, but runs into roadblock:
Then, Canada found their feet again. It took a close call for them to do it, as they nearly lost Mark Anthony Kaye to a red card, but VAR just decided that a hard challenge from the midfielder wasn’t worth more than a yellow, but after that, they started to look more like the Canada that we knew again.
Not only were they starting to hold the ball more and more, having found ways to break the aggressive Costa Rican press, but they seemed to get their swagger back, doing well to really start to show their skill.
Having done well to manage their way through a couple of dangerous Costa Rican set pieces, on which they came close on a couple of occasions, it felt like the worst was behind them, and thanks to that, they really started to look the likelier team to open the scoring.
But then, everything changed in the 34th minute. There, Kaye, frustrated after his earlier yellow and a non-call by the referee, pushed Costa Rica’s Johan Venegas off the ball, and the referee caught him, sending him off with no hesitation with the second yellow.
And there, we saw Canada lose all of the progress that they’d made up to that point. Not only were they now down a man, but also had given all of the momentum back to the home team, who like sharks in the water, smelled blood.
Because of that, it just felt like Canada needed to get to half-time intact. They still looked likely to make something of the game, nearly scoring from a Cyle Larin shot on a corner not long after the sending-off, but they really started to fall onto their back foot after that, which wasn’t ideal.
As a result, it almost wasn’t unsurprising to see Costa Rica nearly grab the lead in the 42nd minute, when they nearly capitalized on a surprising Milan Borjan error at the back, but the ball just trickled wide after bouncing towards the Canadian goal on the lost 50/50 battle.
But then, it felt like Canada had weathered the worst of it as they neared halftime, as they had just the 4 minutes of added time to get through and go regroup in the dressing room.
From there, however, is where Costa Rica’s Celso Borges stepped up, and in a huge way.
After a close call on a set piece seconds earlier, the ball made it out to Gerson Torres out wide, and from there, the Costa Rican midfielder came alive. Sensing a chance to pounce, he ran right down to the byline and floated a nice cross in, one that landed perfectly on the head of a leaping Borges, who floated the ball into the top corner.
With that, not only did he give a big boost to his team’s World Cup qualifying hopes, but gave life to a stadium that was just bursting at the seams for a moment like that, igniting the crowd to a level that wasn’t felt at all in the lead-up.
And for Canada, it was a nightmare scenario for them to be in. Not only were they down the goal, with the crowd fully in the game, but down a man, that was the toughest part, as it just felt like Canada wouldn’t have enough to break through for a goal.
Sink or swim:
So as they looked to manage the reality of being in that situation, it proved to be crunch time for Canada.
Whether they wanted to or not, they’d gotten thrown into the deep end, so all that was left for them was to sink or swim.
And there, they made the choice to swim, staying in the fight. Even down a man, they seemed to find some life after the break, and with that, it all of a sudden looked a lot likelier that they could make something of this game.
“After (the red), I thought the boys responded very well,” Herdman noted.
And Tajon Buchanan gave a warning shot to their opponents early on in the half, too, nearly scoring after some nice trickery that opened up space for a shot, only finding himself denied by a great save from Keylor Navas.
So with that, it really felt like Canada had a lifeline, albeit a slim one, something that didn’t feel possible not long before.
At the same time, though, they had to be careful. They got a reminder of why right after the Buchanan chance, as Costa Rica’s Joel Campbell then got a breakaway, but luckily for Canada, a combination of Milan Borjan rushing out and Atiba Hutchinson tracking back snuffed out that chance.
But at the other end, they continued to buzz, with the always-dangerous David then serving another warning shot in the 52nd minute, just narrowly finding his strong shot denied by a body in the box.
Then, in the 63rd minute, Stephen Eustaquio nearly had a moment to remember, making a great run forward before unleashing a strike, but his low rocket just sailed wide of Navas’s goal.
And then not long after, Buchanan, continuing a strong half, then had the best chance of the game for his team up to that point in the 73rd minute, as he got up nicely for a bouncing rebound, only finding himself denied by the crossbar on his attempt. On the ensuing rebound, Canada almost came close then, too, as Buchanan got a leg on the ball, but volleyed it just over.
The push wouldn’t stop there, either, as Richie Laryea then unleashed a powerful strike in the 82nd minute, one that looked goalbound, but he was just denied by the strong fists of Navas, who did well to react to the spin of the shot.
Then, David had another glorious opportunity in the 87th minute, as he flashed across the box to get off a nice header, and he did nearly everything right, but just didn’t do enough as his shot flashed off the post and went out.
But from there, it’d be all that Canada would be able to muster on their push, as Costa Rica did well to lock things down for the rest of the way, able to grind out the result. As shown by the slew of Canadian chances, it wasn’t easy for them, but ultimately, the Ticos did what they needed to do in order to win, putting up a veteran performance.
And that’s CONCACAF sometimes. Teams just seem to find a way in some games, and Costa Rica is a team that seems to just thrive in chaos, always doing their best when their backs are up against the wall, as it was heading into his game.
So considering that with this win, they’re now back into the top 4, putting themselves in a playoff spot in the process, this was just the latest example of that, especially considering that a loss could’ve all but ended their hopes.
Because of that, while Canada will feel hard done by the fact that they did everything but score, down a man to boot, that’s just CONCACAF for you, as they got a harsh reminder of in this game.
For a team that hadn’t gotten much of a taste of that on this dream-like run so far, it’s a huge reminder of what still awaits them as they look to finish the job now on Sunday, as they’ll now know that qualification won’t be handed to them.
“We could’ve stayed there until 2, 3 AM, and that goal wasn’t going to come,” Herdman joked. “We’d gone 17 games, we’ve sat on the other side of the table, and tonight, the football gods just weren’t giving us what we needed.”
“Maybe it’s written in the stars, to qualify at home (though)”, he noted with a smile after.
“We just have to go home now and handle business,” Canada’s Junior Hoilett added.
Otherwise, it was quite an interesting night for Canada tactically.
Anticipating a new-look Costa Rica side, Herdman came out with a bit of a new look, rocking with his usual 3-5-2, but with a bit of a wrinkle – he inserted midfielder, Atiba Hutchinson, in the back 3 as a centre back.
Considering that the 39-year-old has played exclusively in the middle throughout this qualifying campaign, it was quite surprising to see him in the new position, but to give him credit, he mostly looked comfortable there.
He and his backline certainly weren’t perfect, as they could’ve done a lot better in the air, for example, but they did a good job of shutting things down on the ground, keeping Costa Rica out of dangerous areas for the most part.
And the nice thing about having Hutchinson back there was that it gave Canada some strong distribution at the back, making up for the fact that usual centre back Steven Vitoria wasn’t able to start, as well as Doneil Henry, who are both pretty strong in that area.
So overall, while you do wonder if that goal could’ve been prevented if there was more of a natural centre back on the pitch, you also have to give Costa Rica credit for being strong in that area of their game, one of the best team’s in the region via that avenue.
Other than that, though, it was business as usual for Canada tactically.
After a slow start, they really found their rhythm, especially in the minutes leading up to the red card, and did well to not stray from that game plan when going down a man.
They easily could’ve sat back into a shell and just defended, but they really tried to take the game to their opponents, and found a way to control the game despite being down the man. Each time they had the ball, they really looked to pass things around and play, and were able to impose themselves on the game despite their man disadvantage.
As a result, it was overall a solid tactical approach from them.
They will certainly look back on their slow start and ponder what they might’ve been able to do differently, but as Herdman noted after the game, there’s a reason why they didn’t adjust things after the red card, as they knew how they wanted to play, and stuck to that.
So while they didn’t score, they did everything but, all by sticking to their philosophy, once again showing their growing identity as a team.
“We actually didn’t make any adjustments,” Herdman said when asked how his team picked things up after a slow start. “We knew we had to absorb that pressure, there was a period of time where we were going to have to absorb that, but what we wanted to make sure of is that we maintained that attitude.”
In the Mixer:
Lastly, here are some bits and bobs that stood out from this one:
- With this loss, Canada’s World Cup qualifying undefeated streak now ends at 18 games, dating back to the last cycle. That’s not bad at all, especially considering how close they were to keeping the run going in this game. At a certain point, the luck had to run out.
- Also speaking of runs being snapped, it’s worth noting that Kaye’s red card also snapped a 24-game run without them for Canada, who have done well to keep their players on the pitch despite their feisty style. Much like the other stat, though, it was bound to end at some point, although they probably just didn’t expect in that fashion.
- So much for match fitness for Richie Laryea or Stephen Eustaquio, eh? Despite a struggle for minutes at the club level, they did not look off the pace at all, arguably putting up the two best individual performances on Thursday. Can’t say many were expecting that.
- This is just the second time this Octo and third time since 2019 that Canada has been shut out in an official competition. After Atiba Hutchinson scored with his back last window, this was also coming.
- Sunday is going to be a party.
Speaking of Sunday, that’s the new goal now for Canada, as they shift their attention to what awaits them at BMO Field.
And there, it promises to be special, as the game is sold out with Canadian fans eager to see Canada snap their 36-year drought, after which they’ll look to celebrate appropriately.
So for Canada, they’ll look to make sure that they have a performance to match that, ensuring that they qualify comfortably with a victory, instead of squeaking in with a draw.
Plus, while it feels easy to be down after this result, at the end of the day, Canada is still atop the Octo by 3 points, has their destiny firmly in their hands and is about to get a chance to clinch against an already-eliminated Jamaica team in front of their home fans.
It doesn’t get much better than that, so now all that’s left is for them to actually go and make it happen, putting a bow on what has already been a memorable campaign so far, even if all didn’t go as planned in this one.
“Get ready Canada,” Herdman promised afterwards. “We’re coming”.
Up Next: Canada vs Jamaica, Sunday March 27th, 13:05 PST, 16:05 EST (BMO Field, Toronto)
Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer