Given the expectations placed on this version of Canada’s men’s soccer team, Tuesday’s scoreless draw against the United States felt like a massive victory.
The young Canadians were under pressure for virtually the entire 90 minutes against a more skilled American side on a night that ended with a downpour of rain.
But to their credit, the Canucks dealt with everything that came their way.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Canada frantically defended a final American free kick in the fourth minute of stoppage time. After the ball was cleared the safety and the referee blew the final whistle, the Canadian bench erupted in celebration.
“It might not have been the silkiest performance at times but I’ll tell you what, if we were going to give a goal away tonight it was going to be through a mistake and I’m so proud of the players,” said Canadian interim head coach Collin Miller, his voice hoarse from 90 minutes of shouting. “Every single one of them on the park contributed.”
The Canadian team is in rebuilding mode after being eliminated from World Cup qualifying last year in humiliating fashion, an 8-1 loss to Honduras that cost former coach Stephen Hart his job.
This incaration, filled with young players and sprinkled with a few veterans, completed a pair of January games with a draw and a loss following Saturday’s 4-0 defeat to Denmark in Tucson, Ariz.
Miller, in his second stint as Canadian interim head coach, was beaming following his first result in five games at the helm of the national team.
He was also at the reigns in 2003 when Canada lost against Finland, Ireland and the Czech Republic.
“That’s what I’ve told the guys. That’s my first point in five games,” he said. “I’m so proud to get a good result. It means the world to me.”
It’s the second straight scoreless draw between the nations after a 0-0 draw at Toronto’s BMO Field in June.
Canadian captain Dwayne De Rosario, one of the few vets in the squad, tried to lead by example on Tuesday and nearly had the 64th-ranked team in the world on the board in the sixth minute.
Right back Nik Ledgerwood fired in a cross, and while it was over De Rosario’s head, he chased the ball down and fired on a hop with his left foot, forcing U.S. goalkeeper Sean Johnson to punch clear.
“The improvement we’ve made in the game in such a short turnaround was really refreshing to see,” said De Rosario, who ran tirelessly up and down the field for 81 minutes. “It’s one game. It’s one good result and hopefully we can continue to build on that.”
From there Canada had to defend wave after wave of American attack as the hosts held 70 per cent of the possession in the first half. The Canadians packed the defensive end and the U.S., ranked 28th in the world, simply lacked the quality to break down the resolute defence.
It was a night-and-day performance for the Canadian defence following Saturday’s disjointed and disorganized performance against Denmark.
“We saw the mistakes we made and we fixed it and from then on we played our game,” said defender Dejan Jakovic, who was Canada man of the match. “Everyone was hungry and wanted to play and we got a decent result against a good team.”
For a squad looking for confidence it was certainly a first half to build on as three players made their first appearances at the senior level for Canada.
The U.S. pressure mounted as the night wore on, with Canada having to deal with a number of dead-ball situations.
De Rosario also had Canada’s best chance in the second half. Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Russell Teibert delivered a left-footed free kick from the right side that De Rosario got his head to but it went agonizingly wide of the post in the 55th minute.
The United States, meanwhile, which is preparing for its opening game in the final round of World Cup qualifying, saw defender Omar Gonzalez return lineup after a two-year absence.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann changed all 11 starters from November’s 2-2 tie at Russia and is likely to change the entire lineup again for the Feb. 6 qualifier against Honduras at San Pedro Sula. These players were auditioning for backup roles on next week’s trip.
Gonzalez was the senior member of the backline. Making his third international appearance, the six-foot-five Los Angeles Galaxy centre back was joined by three players making their national team debuts: right back Tony Beltran, centre back Matt Besler and left back Justin Morrow. Will Bruin and Alfredo Morales made their debuts when they entered in the 74th minute.
Gonzalez made his national team debut in August 2010 against Brazil and played against Chile the following January. He tore his left anterior cruciate ligament last January on his first day training with Nuremberg and returned to the field for the Galaxy on July 4.
With Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and the other regulars remaining with their clubs in Europe for weekend matches, the U.S. started an all-Major League Soccer lineup for the first time since January 2007 against Denmark.
Note: De Rosario — who played for three years for the Houston Dynamo — was treated to a warm ovation by the 11,737 fans when he was substituted in the second half. ... The Americans extended their unbeaten streak against Canada to 16 games (8-0-8) since a 2-0 loss in Vancouver in April 1985.