It is a fact that in World Cup qualifying the expectations are higher for the United States than Canada and so too were the issues facing Juergen Klinsmann's team heading into Sunday's exhibition match at BMO Field.
Can Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan re-kindle their on-field relationship? Does Klinsmann go 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 when the matches start to matter?
So what could Canada take away from a scoreless match on a windy evening by the lakefront?
“The last couple of games we've played, we haven't been hard to beat,” said Canadian captain Kevin McKenna. “Today, we were hard to beat.”
Sunday's match was the third in eight days for the U.S., and its fifth in 18 days, ahead of the start of its 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign Friday night in Tampa against Antigua and Barbuda. Canada hadn't played in three months, going back to a 3-1 loss to Armenia, and will travel to Havana on Friday for a match against Cuba before playing Honduras at BMO Field next Tuesday.
The draw extended the Americans' unbeaten streak against Canada to 15 games but Canadian head coach Stephen Hart had reason to smile. His goalkeeper, Lars Hirschfeld, made the save of the game in the dying seconds when he palmed a header from Clarence Goodson over the goal but for the most part his back-line was disciplined and organized. And just minutes before Hirschfeld's save, Canada should have scored but Simeon Jackson missed a sitter two yards in front of U.S. keeper Tim Howard.
Coming off a 4-1 loss to Brazil, Klinsmann reunited Donovan and Dempsey for the first time since a 4-2 loss to Mexico in the final of the Gold Cup on last June.
Dempsey, who had 17 goals for English Premier League side Fulham this season, set up Donovan for one of two goals in that match as the U.S. jumped out to a 2-0 lead before succumbing to the Mexicans.
The ability of the two players to function in the final third of the field has been one of Klinsmann’s worries ahead of qualifying, as has the soft play of his centre-backs. Dempsey looked lively in the first half (much like Canada’s Dwayne De Rosario, he peeled into the midfield at times looking for the game) but the Americans’ best chance came in the 16th minute when Edgar Castillo hit a 40-yard bomb that dipped tantalizingly and forced Hirschfeld to tip the ball over the bar.
Klinsmann spent the days after the loss to Brazil talking about his side’s need to be less “naive” – his choice of word – and suggested his players needed to be more forceful in some of the political aspects of the match such as lobbying referees. Whether it was lobbying, it was a phantom foul against De Rosario spotted by the linesman in the 34th minute that erased a goal by Canada’s Nik Ledgerwood.
This was the Canadian Soccer Association’s centennial match, and wearing retro blue jerseys in tribute to those worn by the first Canadian team to play the U.S. in Canada – 1925 in Montreal – Canada showed an industriousness along its back line of André Hainault (back in Hart’s good books, apparently), David Edgar, McKenna and Ante Jazic, that augers well for its qualifiers. That was particularly the case in the match’s first 10 minutes, when the U.S. dominated possession and had two corners.
Short on firepower at the best of times, Atiba Hutchinson’s knee injury left Canada bereft of attacking options but when Hart introduced Jackson in the 65th minute, the home side seemed to seize the initiative. Canada’s No. 10 raised hopes briefly in the 68th minute when he caught Howard playing off his line and tried to chip the ball over him, only to have it land on the top of the net. The game also marked the international senior debut of 17-year-old Samuel Piette, the Repentigny, Que., native who is expected to sign with recently-promoted Bundesliga side Fortuna Dusseldorf. Piette entered the match in the 85th minute.
U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said the result was good for the U.S. “because we needed a response after giving up four goals to Brazil.” He also credited the Canadians. “They did a good job of making it tough to break them down,” he said.
Based on the expectations going into the night, for once Hart and his charges could say they’d accomplished something.