Alphonso Davies was already back in Germany and tweeting up a storm by the time Canada took the field for its all-important World Cup qualifier against El Salvador on Wednesday night.
The Bayern Munich defender flew back on Tuesday night having been ruled out of the game with an injury he picked up during Sunday’s draw in the United States. However, that didn’t stop him leaving his mark on the buildup to this game, with Davies posting a picture on social media alongside the caption: “They won’t realize how big a part you play, until you’re not there to play it anymore.”
While he later clarified his post, telling fans not to read anything into it, it turns out they shouldn’t have worried. Canada didn’t need the reigning men’s player of the year for this particular game, rolling to a comfortable 3-0 victory to keep next year’s World Cup in Qatar firmly in sight.
In fact, if head coach John Herman could have hand-picked a game for his best – and arguably most important - player to miss, it would likely been this one, as the Canadian men’s soccer team stayed unbeaten through three games in the final World Cup qualifying group.
The road is only going to get tougher from here on out though, with Canada now facing a trip to the famous Azteca Stadium in Mexico City for its next match, on October 7, followed by a trip to Jamaica three days later. Home matches against Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico will wrap up the 2021 portion of the campaign, before six more early next year.
Mexico’s 1-1 draw with Panama on Wednesday night leaves Canada second in the eight-team group after three games. Come next March, the top three qualify automatically for Qatar, with the fourth-placed team moving into a two-legged intercontinental playoff for another spot.
If preparations for play high-pressured road games in front of frenzied crowds were any part of Herdman’s game plan though, Toronto’s BMO Field obliged on Wednesday.
Strains of 80s anthem Our House by British band Madness rang around BMO Field shortly before kickoff, but it was tough to know exactly whose house BMO Field belonged to on this night. A casual glance into the stands suggested that the blue jerseys of El Salvador fans were at least equalling the red shirts of the Canadian faithful, if not outnumbering them.
Consequently the battle for early supremacy seemed to play out in the stands as much as on the field, with fan renditions of When The Reds Go Marching In attempting to swing the match in the home side’s favour.
Coincidence or not, the efforts worked, with Canada scoring twice within the first quarter of an hour. Still, goalkeeper Milan Borjan said afterwards that it’s high time Canadians got behind him and his teammates.
“We need Canada to wake up and to support this team because this team can go a long way,” he said. “The World Cup is just right there … This stadium needs to be all red, not blue, whatever. Red.”
Jonathan Osorio, who is used to seeing the BMO Field stands awash in a sea of red as one of Toronto FC’s star midfielders, was the one who helped turn the tide in Canada’s favour.
He intercepted an El Salvador pass barely six minutes in, and proceeded to lead a counterattack down the left wing. He flipped the ball to Junior Hoilett, and when he got it back he nudged it towards TFC teammate Richie Laryea, who delivered a hard, low cross that was turned it by captain Atiba Hutchinson at the near post.
Five minutes later the smiles in the stands turned into wide grins. A Hoilett free kick was headed on by Steven Vitoria, and when Tajon Buchanan lobbed it back into the danger area, Jonathan David neatly guided a header into the far corner for his 17th international goal in just his 16th start.
And Canada made sure of the win and the all-important three points just before the hour mark. An alert David seized on a loose pass from El Salvador, allowing him to bear down on a solitary defender with Buchanan riding shotgun. Having already put his name on the scoresheet, David turned provider, rolling a simple pass to his left to allow Buchanan to add an exclamation point to the victory.
The almost two-year wait to play a game on Canadian soil because of the pandemic made these games extra sweet, Osorio said.
“These are our first games at home in a long time, and these are our most meaningful games in a very, very long time...” he said. “It was special to come out and get the victory that we envisioned.”
If Canada is going to qualify for next year’s World Cup, it will do so based on a solid foundation. While Herdman seems to have a plethora of attacking options at his disposal – even without Davies – he seems to have arrived on a trio of players he can rarely do without.
With Wednesday’s match representing the hard realities of a pandemic-enforced compressed World Cup qualifying schedule and resulting in a third match in eight days, Herdman has carefully metered out minutes to some of his stars. That meant a spot on the bench for Cyle Larin, scorer of both goals in this final World Cup qualifying stage so far, and the man who has delivered six of the country’s last eight goals.
But outside of goalkeeper Milan Borjan, three players made their third consecutive start for their country, with Eustaquio, Layrea and Alistair Johnston all taking their usual places in the starting lineup.
Though they didn’t etch their names on the scoresheet, outside of Layrea’s assist on the opener, all three played their habitual hard-wrung roles in the team’s success, with Eustaquio finally withdrawn on 79 minutes, having played 259 hard minutes in the past eight days.
Now’s the time to rest up. With visits to Mexico and Jamaica on the horizon, there’s plenty more hard minutes to come.