After 36 long years, the wait is almost over for the Canadian men’s national soccer team.
Following a 2-0 win in El Salvador on Wednesday, the team is now just a win away from advancing to a first World Cup since 1986. It wasn’t easy, but Canada earned a sixth straight victory and remained unbeaten through all 11 games of this final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
With a win in any of the three remaining qualifiers, all taking place at the end of March - away against Costa Rica, home against Jamaica, and at Panama – Canada will seal its World Cup spot. The team is still in first place in the eight-team group, four points up on the United States and Mexico, who both won on Wednesday.
Predictably, in a game of squad rotation, where head coach John Herdman made wholesale changes from the team that had beaten the United States 2-0 on Sunday, it was the 38-year-old legs of Atiba Hutchinson that did the damage with one of the most bizarre goals you’re ever likely to see.
Scoring his ninth goal for his country – and his second against El Salvador in this final round of World Cup qualifying – in his record 92nd appearance for his country, the captain of the Canadian men’s national team, who turns 39 next Tuesday, was at his inspiring best.
He reflected on his long journey toward the World Cup afterwards.
“This team, this program, we’ve gone through a lot,” Hutchinson said. “We’ve had a lot of rough times and heartbreaking results. ... We’ve got a whole nation that’s finally behind us, and we feel that really pushes us on.”
And just as he did in Honduras last week, Jonathan David scored once again to put the finishing touches onto a third consecutive 2-0 victory to wrap up what Herdman termed “a challenging [international] window.”
Thanks to Costa Rica’s 1-0 win over Jamaica earlier in the evening, the Canadian men knew they had no chance to wrap up qualification for Qatar on this night before the game started. John Herdman’s team needed a confluence of four different events to occur to punch its World Cup ticket on Wednesday, and with the very first one going against it, attention could then return to proceedings at pitch level at the Cuscatlan Stadium in the El Salvador capital of San Salvador.
Not that there wasn’t enough going on in the hours leading up to the game to distract players on both sides. For a while it looked like there wasn’t even going to be a game, with the home side initially refusing to play owing to a disagreement with its national soccer federation over bonuses and the treatment of players.
With that eventually ironed out, and the players releasing a statement saying that had “decided to play and give everything to keep this illusion of a country alive,” El Salvador was handed what seemed another blow when starting goalkeeper Mario Gonzalez injured his ankle during warmups.
But despite coming in cold, his replacement Kevin Carabantes was called on often in the first half, with the highlight being a low reaction save on a shot from one of Europe’s most in-form strikers, Jonathan David, when he was set up beautifully by the scorer of Sunday’s second goal, Sam Adekugbe. He also did well to react on set pieces too, denying both Stephen Eustaquiao and Junior Hoilett from free kicks.
Staying true to his “next man up” mantra that he has espoused throughout this World Cup qualifying campaign, Herdman decided against just rolling things over from Sunday’s now-epochal victory over the United States in Hamilton. Consequently the scorer of the first goal in that game, Cyle Larin, who is now the program’s all-time scoring leader with 23 national-team goals, found himself of the bench to start the match.
He wasn’t alone, joined by other pivotal players as Herdman ringed the changes, mindful of his team playing its third game in seven days, as well as going from the sub-zero temperatures of Hamilton to the high teens and high humidity of San Salvador. So speedy winger Tajon Buchanan and Alistair Johnston also got to start the game in the dugout, an unfamiliar spot for Johnston, who had played 1,174 minutes of World Cup qualifying action before kickoff, the most among the Canadian players.
However, all three saw action in the second half as Canada pushed for the win following a scoreless first 45 minutes. And after his star turn on Sunday, it was Larin’s opportunity to turn provider here.
Barely 10 minutes after coming on, the Besiktas striker tore down the right wing before centring a cross towards his teammate for both club and country. Hutchinson was able to get a head on the ball, but it could only cannon back off the post, before hitting the Canadian captain twice more and somehow rebounding into the net past a startled Carabantes.
“Obviously a lucky goal but it crossed the line, and in football sometimes you need that luck,” Hutchinson said afterward.
Milan Borjan, who came up with a number of vital saves in the win Sunday, finally got called upon to make a difference in injury time, saving the only two shots that El Salvador put on target, tipping one long-range effort over the bar in spectacular fashion.
Seconds later, David completed the scoring with a neat chipped finish for his 20th international goal in just his 27th appearance for Canada.
After controlling the match for large periods, with a 52-48 per-cent edge in possession, to go along with an 11-5 advantage in shots, the victory was no more than Canada deserved.
The win, Canada’s first in El Salvador since 1996, has pushed Canada to the verge of its World Cup dream. Now it has to play the waiting game until March 24 at the earliest to see how that dream concludes.