As far as interminable waits go, the 772 days since the Canadian men’s national team last played a game on home soil is very much the thin end of the wedge.
Longer still is the nearly 24 years since Canada last kicked a ball in the final stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, to say nothing of the 35-year gap since Canada made its first – and only – appearance at a men’s World Cup tournament.
After a 1-1 draw with Honduras at Toronto’s BMO Field on Thursday night, the first two tests of patience are finally over, and the third is still very much within sight, albeit slightly less probable than it was ahead of kickoff.
A Cyle Larin second-half penalty cancelled out one from Alexander Lopez, but the boos that rang around the stadium after the game – many likely directed at Mexican referee Fernando Guerrero – spoke to the fear that this was two points dropped here.
Despite the perception of some that this was two dropped points, Canada head coach John Herdman was as bubbly and optimistic as usual in his post-match press conference.
“It’s the sort of game that you’ve got to take three points out of at home but we’ll take a point after that performance,” he said, before falling back on one of soccer’s oldest clichés – that it’s a game of two halves.
Tired cliché or not though, the adjustments made at halftime, which included bringing Junior Hoilett on for Tajon Buchanan, had the desired effect as Canada responded to various wake-up calls during the interval.
“I’m proud of how they responded, you could sense they were coming in at halftime pissed with the referee … but the leaders in the dressing room steadied the ship, and we made some adjustments.”
More than anything else, Herdman emphasized what a “marathon” this World Cup qualifying tournament is going to be.
With 13 games to play in this final round, however, there is still a long way to go. That journey, arguably more arduous thanks to a compressed seven-month schedule that concludes next March, will now take to the road for the first of seven away games, beginning this Sunday in Nashville against the United States. The top three countries in the eight-team group will qualify for next year’s World Cup in Qatar, with the fourth-placed team facing a two-legged playoff against a representative from another continent.
In the buildup to Thursday’s match, head coach John Herdman emphasized the pressing need to win the home games, and it’s not hard to see why. Canada has struggled on the road in past World Cup qualifying campaigns, and has never won qualifying games in five of the seven rival countries, including Mexico, Jamaica and Costa Rica. The country’s last World Cup qualifying win in the United States was in 1957, while few need reminding of the 8-1 loss in Honduras that ended hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
The need to replicate that feat has rarely seemed more urgent than now.
Following on from the team’s Gold Cup semi-final appearance this summer, where it narrowly lost to defending champion Mexico in the ninth minute of injury time, the pregame hype around this team was beginning to verge on expectant. Starting strikers Jonathan David and Cyle Larin have benefited from the experience that comes with winning league titles in France and Turkey, respectively, while Alphonso Davies has added a Champions League title to his burgeoning trophy cabinet since the last time he played on home soil.
That was back in October, 2019, in a 2-0 Nations League win over the United States at BMO Field that heralded the arrival of a new crop of Canadian talent for the men’s team. And while the pandemic may have forced Herdman’s team on the road since then, the returns have been surprisingly good, with Canada going 11-4-0 in that time and developing a sense of resilience that it will need in the weeks and months to come.
The team romped through the earlier World Cup qualifying rounds, outscoring Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Aruba and Suriname by a combined 27-1 score, before successfully negotiating a two-legged tie against Haiti. That included a 1-0 win in Port-au-Prince that Herdman called a “defining moment” for this squad.
Canada will likely need more of the same after a game in which it struggled to find the rhythm that had served it so well during the Gold Cup. Attacks seemed disjointed, and on the numerous occasions when Davies glided around the back of the Honduran defence, the final ball was generally lacking.
With the home side struggling to impose itself on the flow of the game, Tajon Buchanan decided to impose himself physically five minutes before halftime, charging Andy Najar off the ball inside the Canadian penalty area. The result was conceding one of the more bizarre penalty kicks any of the 15,000 fans in attendance were ever likely to see.
Lopez easily dispatched the kick past Milan Borjan’s despairing dive, but promptly collapsed holding his leg and was stretchered off with a hamstring injury, to be replaced by CF Montreal striker Romell Quioto.
An enforced halftime substitution swung the game back in Canada’s favour, with Junior Hoilett replacing an injured Buchanan, who had his left ankle taped when he took his place on the bench for the second half.
Shortly after the hour mark, Hoilett was fouled in the box while bearing down on goal, and Larin dispatched the ensuing penalty, coolly rolling it down the middle.
And fortune favoured Canada in the 74th minute, when a header from Brayan Moya cannoned back off the post and onto Borjan’s leg, but somehow the ball stayed out and Alistair Johnston was first to the loose ball to clear and preserve the point for Canada.
The intervention didn’t go unnoticed by his head coach either, with Herdman singling out the 22-year-old defender for special praise.
“Absolute warrior tonight,” he said. “That lad epitomizes what we want to be about.”