Ten years is a long time in soccer. Just ask Atiba Hutchinson.
In 2012, Hutchinson was in the starting lineup as Canada visited the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in the second-largest city in Honduras, San Pedro Sula, confident of advancing in World Cup qualifying. However, the Canadians came up short – and then some – in an 8-1 humbling. Four years later, the scoreline was better, but the result remained frustratingly the same for Canada and Hutchinson, as a 2-1 loss brought another premature end to another World Cup dream.
But this is 2022, a time when Canadian men’s soccer players are just as likely to win the Lou Marsh Trophy as they are to hoist cherished European soccer trophies, and that dream is still very much alive after Hutchinson captained Canada to a 2-0 win in Honduras on Thursday. Hutchinson, one of just three holdovers in the squad from that 2012 game, can now look forward to a titanic showdown with the United States on Sunday after playing all 90 minutes at 38 years of age to ensure Canada finally turned the page on an ugly chapter in the country’s soccer history.
“It was a real disciplined performance tonight,” said head coach John Herdman. “You don’t come and try and play like Barcelona on a pitch like this in these environments, you come here to grind a result and get what you need.”
An early own goal and an insurance marker from Jonathan David were enough to earn the victory, just Canada’s second in the Central American nation. The win keeps Canada unbeaten and atop the eight-team final World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region, one point ahead of the United States and two clear of Mexico, who both won on Thursday.
Just as important, fifth-placed Costa Rica hung on for a 1-0 win over fourth-placed Panama later on in the evening, leaving Canada now five points clear of fourth place. With five more games to go, the top three teams after 14 games will qualify for the World Cup in Qatar in November. And the fourth-placed team faces a one-game playoff against a team from the Oceania region for a final shot at qualification.
But the Canadian men are flying the flag high right now, heading into Sunday’s showdown with the United States at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.
As Herdman told the BBC in the hours leading up to the game, the Canadian men’s team “is a sleeping giant. It is ready to put itself into the sporting consciousness of the genuine Canadian sports fan.”
Up until Thursday, Canada’s sole win in Honduras was on Aug. 25, 1985, when George Pakos scored the lone goal of the game to put Canada within touching distance of the 1986 World Cup. The following month, Tony Waiters’s team wrapped up the country’s solitary successful World Cup qualification campaign with a home win over Honduras in St. John’s.
How times have changed though. While Pakos paid the bills by finding employment as a water-meter technician throughout his mostly amateur career, the current crop of Canadian men have their bills – along with some of more lavish trappings of celebrity – taken care of by the likes of German giant Bayern Munich, French champion LOSC Lille and Turkey’s double-winning Besiktas.
But the most famous – and gifted – among the current crop of World Cup contenders, Alphonso Davies, missed Thursday’s game after contracting COVID-19 and subsequently developing myocarditis, more commonly known as inflammation of the heart. Still, eager to still be part of the action, the Bayern Munich defender played host to an online watch-along party on Twitch.
If a missing talisman wasn’t enough to flatten any spikes of overconfidence among the Canadian fan base, there was news that midfield linchpin Stephen Eustaquio – who had started seven of the eight final-round World Cup qualifiers – was also out after only recently recovering from COVID.
The opening exchanges certainly suggested that it was going to be a long night, with Honduras earning two quick corner kicks as it carried much of the play. But in the absence of Davies, Tajon Buchanan, the other speedy winger on Herdman’s roster, made Honduras pay.
Zipping down the right side, Buchanan, who recently moved to Belgian side Bruges, cut into the penalty area and unleashed a cross that was turned into his own net by Honduran centre back Denil Maldonado.
The early goal apart, it was largely a workmanlike effort from Herdman’s squad, with goalkeeper Milan Borjan called on a few times to bail out the team in front of him. In particular, his saves to deny an onrushing Romell Quioto of CF Montreal at the end of the first half, before a stunning one-handed save in the second half on a header from Kervin Arriaga, will live long in the memory.
The Red Star Belgrade goalkeeper preserved Canada’s slim advantage just long enough for David to add an exclamation point, with the Lille forward, currently second in scoring in France’s Ligue 1, running onto a through-ball and neatly lobbing Luis Lopez in the Honduran goal.
Herdman singled the French title winner out for his cool head after the 22-year-old picked up his 19th international goal in just his 25th appearance for the senior men’s team.
“He can produce that moment,” the English coach said. “And it was quite late in the game, he put a big shift in and he’s still there ready. … I’ve called him this before, that sort of ice man. Just that ice in his veins in big moments.”
Canada and Honduras kicked off this final round of World Cup qualifying with an underwhelming 1-1 draw in Toronto last September. The pair have gone in vastly different directions since that night at BMO Field.
Canada, now ranked 40th in the world, has won five and tied four to top the eight-team qualifying group by a point over the United States. After Sunday’s game, Canada flies to El Salvador for its third and final game in this international window, to be held next Wednesday.
Honduras, on the other hand, has drawn two and lost six games, and finds itself ranked 76th on the planet and propping up the standing with just three points.