“It’s been a hell of a journey”: World Cup-bound CanMNT finishes atop Octo standings despite 1-0 loss to Panama

The CanMNT took on Panama on Wednesday, closing out the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, in the process. Here’s our match report from that one. 

Having already celebrated a big achievement, they just didn’t have enough left in the tank to end on a high note. 

At the same time, while they didn’t get the result that they so badly craved away to Panama on Wednesday, there’s a lot to be happy about for the CanMNT despite a 1-0 loss to Los Canaleros. 

They might have a sour taste after losing, but other than that, thanks to results elsewhere, they were still able to officially clinch the top spot in the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, a long-stated goal of theirs. 

Along with the fact that they were already officially qualified for the 2022 World Cup ahead of then, the only team in CONCACAF to do so heading into this final game, they’d already taken care of their main goal, leaving them with no worries heading into this game. 

So although Canada will also rue the fact that this loss to Panama, as one other consequence of that is that it also pushed them out of Pot 3 and into Pot 4 for the World Cup draw, they’ve otherwise taken care of pretty much nearly everything else they set out as a goal this campaign. 

And that’s huge. For a team that started this journey towards the World Cup just over a year ago, having to go through two tough gruelling rounds before making it to the Octo, just grinding their way in the back door felt like it would’ve been enough at the start of 2021.

But through their strong performances, they were able to surprise many, showing that they were capable of doing so much more than that. 

Which considering that they’re heading to Qatar as the top team in CONCACAF, is just proof of how good they’ve been on this journey, where they’ve found a way to win the hearts of many across Canada and the globe with how they played.

Because of that, while this loss stings, it’s important to look back and reflect on the ride that it’s been for Canada, one that they officially closed the chapter on in this game. 

“For us, we’ve had 20 games, 20 games of World Cup qualifying, ” Canadian head coach, John Herdman, noted afterwards. “And we’ve won a few, we’ve drawn a few, and we’ve only lost two.”

“And those losses, they’re big learnings, every loss we’ve had on this four-year campaign, we work hard to learn from it and we’ll come back stronger. And congratulations to Panama, they’re a good team.”

From the early rounds where they battled through tricky foes such as Bermuda, Suriname and Haiti, to this Octo, where they took on the top teams in CONCACAF in Mexico, US, Costa Rica, Panama, Jamaica, Honduras and El Salvador (beating each team once, too), it’s been quite the ride for Canada so far. 

And now, thanks to that, they’ve been rewarded for the work that they’ve done with a journey back to the World Cup, one that they’ll look to soak in after being away for so long. 

“Tonight we celebrated on the field when we heard we clinched the top spot, and rightly so,” Herdman continued. “It’s been a hell of a journey for this group of fans, the organization and these players, and the work just starts now, across all levels in the game. This is just the start of what we’ve got to do.”

At the same time, while it’s easy to focus on what lies ahead, we’ll still take a look back at this Panama game, one that despite there not being much at stake for either team, ended up being a lot more contested than expected. Here’s a look at how things went down. 

Celebration hangover?

Given Canada’s memorable weekend, you could only wonder how they’d come out in this game. 

Having already booked their spot in the World Cup, and having celebrated that fact quite intensely, it would have been easy to want to take this game lightly, something you wouldn’t have blamed them for doing. 

Of course, they had a lot to play for in this match, as a chance to officially finish atop the Octo and become a Pot 3 team for the World Cup looked to be more than enough motivation for them, but you did wonder if that qualification hangover would play a role. 

And at least to start it would, as Canada came out rather quietly, unable to really impose themselves on this beaten-down Panama side. For whatever reason, Canada just couldn’t grasp the sort of control on the game that they typically do, and it had an impact on their performance.

They had flashes, which was nice, but they just couldn’t get that final pass, or get a shot off, a rare sight for them this Octo. 

The good news, however? Panama were in the same boat, too, as they couldn’t get much going either to start, leading to what can best be described as a low-event first half. 

In fact, other than a bunch of hard fouls by Panama, and some half-chances for either team, there really wasn’t much to write home about, as the fact that the Expected Goals (xG) was just 0.08-0.05 in Panama’s favour at half time should tell you enough. 

That didn’t mean that there weren’t some close calls, though. 

For Panama, Gabriel Torres had a header in the box he probably would’ve liked to have done a lot better with early on, before Cristian Martinez sailed a hard shot just wide from distance near the end of the half. 

At the other end, Canada also came close on a few chances of their own, too, as Jonathan David looked to have gotten taken down quite hard on a breakaway around the 20th minute, before Sam Adekugbe sent a free-kick from a dangerous area just over the bar in the 36th minute. 

Other than that, however, it was a very low-even half, one that looked a lot more like a dead rubber match than anyone was expecting heading into it, making you wonder if that’d change as both teams got set for the second half. 

Panama comes out strong in the second half:

But clearly, Panama got that message at half time, as they looked to immediately change things in the second half. 

Knowing how much a win would mean for the fans who showed up, they came out with a new intention, one that seemed to catch Canada by surprise. 

As a result, they’d open the scoring right in the 50th minute. On a nice transition moment, the ball found Jose Luis Rodriguez in space, and the Panamanian winger did well to look up, and whip in a dangerous ball towards the back post.

And there, he’d find the great run of Torres, and this time the Panamanian forward would make no mistake with his chance, burying home first time on the volley, giving his team his lead. 

That’d be huge for them, too, as the crowd roared their approval as soon as the ball breached the target, showing their support for the strong performance that they’d shown up to that point. Knowing that they were already eliminated, they could’ve easily mailed it in for this game, but given their strong start to the second half, that didn’t look to be the case, throwing Canada onto the back foot. 

Plus, Panama didn’t look to be quite finished there, either. Soon after the goal, the always-dangerous Cecilio Waterman then found some space in a dangerous area outside of the box in the 54th minute, and unleashed a vicious strike, one that only just sailed over the crossbar. 

Because of that, you could only wonder what sort of response that’d elicit from Canada. 

Arguably with more to play for than Panama, they looked very much the second-best team as the half started to wear on, giving them a reason to want to change that as the clock slowly ticked down.

Canada wakes up:

And the good news is that Canada would then find that next gear. 

Thanks to some key substitutions, they really started to push forward, putting Panama under more pressure. 

With that, they’d almost tie things up in the 59th minute, as second-half substitute, Cyle Larin, did well to get behind on a nice pass from fellow sub, Junior Hoilett, in a good position. 

There, Larin would do well to look up and spot Jonathan David in the box, all alone, finding him with a great pass.

But there, Canada’s always-reliable ‘Iceman’ would surprisingly end up being stopped stone-cold by Panama’s Luis Mejia in goal, who did well to block David’s first attempt, before putting him off a rebound chance, which David slid just wide. 

For Canada, it was a huge missed opportunity, as it was arguably their first clear-cut chance of the game, but the good news was that it showed that they were starting to wake up as the second half grew older. 

They still had to be careful of Panama’s threat at the other end, something Edgar Barcenas did well to remind them of with a dangerous free-kick that forced a great stop out of Canada’s Maxime Crépeau in the 76th minute, but they still had every chance to get back into this game. 

And that’d prove to be true in the 81st minute. Off of a nice bit of interplay between Canada’s attackers, the ball found Hoilett out wide, and he whipped in a lovely cross, one that’d find Larin at the back post on the header. 

There, Canada’s top all-time scorer then did what he’d done so many times for Canada this cycle – nod the ball home, seemingly rescuing the game for Canada. 

Or so he thought. Then, after a quick intervention from VAR, it was determined that Larin was actually offside on the cross, nullifying his goal as the referee decided to bring it back. 

That would be a tough blow for Canada, who had seemingly grabbed their unlikely equalizer, but were instead left to chase that goal with 10 minutes to go, which based on how Panama was playing, made that seem like an unlikely task. 

But despite that, they continued to knock on the door, throwing everything possible at Panama to grab a late result. 

First, they’d nearly find it when another second-half sub, Richie Laryea, lasered a low ball across the box, but his great ball was somehow left wanting by three Canadian attackers, all of whom just missed their chance to redirect Laryea’s effort on goal. 

Then, deep into extra time, Larin got up for another great cross in, and much like his cancelled goal earlier, he made great contact on a header, but this time his shot wouldn’t sail into the goal, instead falling just wide of the mark. 

Which, luckily for Panama, would be the last chance that they’d have to endure during Canada’s late surge, leaving them to grab all three points. 

And for Canada, that had to hurt. While they certainly weren’t full value for the victory, as Panama certainly did enough to get at least a point, Canada will feel that they did enough to at least claw back a result late on. 

At the same time, though, they just got a taste of the harsh reality of CONCACAF with this result, something that they didn’t get much of this cycle. 

Sometimes, you’ll do enough to get a result, but a decision will go your way, or you’ll hit a post or just something will prevent you from winning, and Canada got to experience this not only in this game, but their 1-0 loss to Costa Rica last week, as well. 

And that’s not a bad thing. For a team that had done so much winning, sometimes you need a reality check, and they got that this window. 

Plus, the good news is that their reality check still has them going to the World Cup as CONCACAF’s top team, and at the end of the day, that was always the main goal for this Canadian side.

“Tonight was one of those brilliant learning experiences,” Herdman said of the loss. 

Canada celebrates World Cup qualification this past weekend (Canada Soccer/Beau Chevalier)

Tactics: 

Otherwise, it was quite interesting to see the tactical battle develop in this game, as much like when these two teams last met in October, it was a bit of a chess match on Wednesday.

On one side, there was Panama, who despite having nothing to play for, stuck to what they’d done well this Octo, which was to press high, use a high line and try and get things going in transition. 

Then, on the other, there was Canada, who did a lot of what we’ve gotten used to seeing from them, which is to try and control the middle, play in possession and sit deeper off the ball. 

And because of that, it made for an interesting matchup. 

For Canada, there were some wrinkles to their plan, as while they defended staunchly once again, allowing just 0.73 xG on 10 shots against (2 shots on target), they did not look themselves offensively. 

Coming out in a 3-5-2 with a midfield triangle, it was hoped that having Stephen Eustaquio, Mark Anthony Kaye and debutant Ismael Koné on the pitch could really allow Canada to control the game from that area, allowing them to play with freedom. 

But to counter that, Panama really pressed hard, especially whenever the ball entered the centre, which combined with the heat and the conditions, made it hard for Canada to really put together the sort of possession patterns that we typically see from them in the middle. 

They’d have a few flashes where they’d string a few passes together and things would open up, which was nice to see, but for the most part, those moments were fleeting, really giving Panama key control over that key area of the pitch. 

“We knew the intensity was coming, they’re a tough team,” Herdman said of Panama. “So when you look at the press what they did, tactically, they just took the bottom of that box away for periods, they were able to be more aggressive on the top of our box. And, from that, I just felt we weren’t quite on our game.”

And because of that, it left Canada’s attacking threats rather isolated, which is never ideal, especially given that Canada’s formation and personnel was more suited for holding possession and sending numbers slowly, instead of breaking individually in transition. 

The good news, however? Canada’s substitutions made a huge difference. From bringing in Jonathan Osorio and Junior Hoilett as link players between the attackers and midfielders, to having the always-dangerous Cyle Larin, it really made that less of a problem for Canada. 

“We had a very specific game plan coming through the first half, we wanted a professional performance,” Herdman said. “We wanted to make sure those first 20 minutes were managed. So we adopted a way of playing and we knew we had a tactical shift coming in (later).”

But unfortunately, with them not playing from the start, by the time they made it on the pitch, they really had to play catch up, and despite their best efforts to tie things up, they’d just be left wanting on a couple of occasions. 

So overall, while Canada certainly got surprised by how Panama came out tactically, losing that first battle, they did recover nicely to get back in the game, even if their late push proved to be futile. 

“We wanted to make sure we finished stronger than Panama,” Herdman said. “And that was the plan, as we knew we had players coming off the bench that we knew could change the game.”

In The Mixer: 

Lastly, here are some bits and bobs that stood out from this one. 

  • Despite the result, it was nice to see Canada get a chance to finish these qualifiers on top of the Octo. Overall, they had the best campaign in CONCACAF, so it was fitting to see them rewarded. Big shout to the US losing to Costa Rica to allow that to happen.
  • Junior Hoilett continues to fly under the radar, yet every time he sees the pitch, he just finds a way to make things happen. Having players like him in depth roles is a huge part of the reason why Canada has had the campaign that they did. 
  • Had Cyle Larin’s goal counted, he would’ve been tied in the whole world for World Cup qualifiers with 14 goals. A shame that his goal was ultimately ruled out. 
  • Might not have gone the way he liked, but was nice to still see Ismael Koné get the start in this one. Sounds like he had a strong camp, giving him this shot, and while it didn’t end the way he might’ve expected, it’s certainly the first of many for the 19-year-old, who has impressed for a reason so far this season with Montreal. 
  • Credit to Maxime Crépeau for a strong performance in his first Octo start since October. Was nice of him to get a game, and he made the most of it. Won’t start in Qatar, but is a good reminder of the depth Canada now has in goal. 
  • All eyes to Friday now for Canada, as the World Cup draw will be held then. For an idea of who Canada might draw then, here’s a handy chart. 

Looking Forward: 

So now, Canada will look to finally sit back and soak in something that probably doesn’t quite feel real to many of them quite yet – they’ll be heading to the World Cup later this year. 

But indeed, it is real, and thanks to the work that they’ve put in throughout this qualifying process, they can now focus their attention on the fact that they’ll indeed represent the Maple Leaf on the biggest stage later this year. 

And after the journey that they’ve gone through to get to his point, that’s huge. Having gone to tough locales, taken off tough opponents, they’ve done well to take every challenge on the chin and move on, allowing them to get to where they are now. 

Because of that, it’s important that they take time to reflect on what they’ve gone through here, before looking ahead to what lies ahead, giving an idea of what has pushed them along to where they are now. 

Then, after that, the fun really starts, beginning with the World Cup draw on Friday, before leading into the pre-tournament preparation throughout the rest of this year, before leading to the main event, the World Cup. 

After 36 years without it, it’s been long overdue, but it’s finally a reality, one that Canada will look to savour when they get a chance to taste it in a few months’ time. 

“We can go in this World Cup with absolutely no fear,” Herdman said. “No one really expects Canada to go and win it at all, I don’t think many people would expect us to get out of the group. But if you’d asked people for years, they didn’t even think we were going to be there.”

“So again, we’ll look to make Canada proud. We know we’ve got a nation behind us. We felt that two nights ago. We’ve travelled 1000s of miles. We’ve played lots of minutes. We’ve kicked every ball. We’ve never quit. And now, we’re on our way to Qatar ranked #1 in CONCACAF. I’ll sleep well tonight.”

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer

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