With 10 months to go until the start of the World Cup, it’s about time Canadian soccer fans started saving up for new jerseys.
If the wins keep coming, they might even get a chance to wear them in Qatar.
It wasn’t quite a scene out of a Roch Carrier book, but some of the more traditional Canadian sports garb was on display at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton on Sunday. John Tavares Maple Leafs jerseys, Wayne Gretzky Oilers garb and slightly more suitable red-and-white Sidney Crosby Olympic sweaters were dotted throughout the coronavirus-limited 12,000-strong crowd, even if Canada was dressed head-to-toe in black.
Suitably, just as it was for Crosby’s career-defining moment from 12 years ago, it was the United States providing the opposition, and for the majority of the game it looked as though Cyle Larin’s seventh-minute strike would stand up as this year’s golden goal, before Sam Adekugbe added some breathing room in injury time.
The 2-0 win, Canada’s first World Cup victory over the United States since 1980, has provided John Herdman’s unbeaten squad with some daylight at the top of the final CONCACAF World Cup group with just four games to go. The top three teams after 14 games qualify automatically for November’s World Cup, with the fourth-placed team facing a one-game playoff against the top team from the Oceania region.
That team is currently Panama, which edged Jamaica 3-2 on Sunday evening to move within five points of Canada, meaning Herdman’s team is now unable to clinch a World Cup spot in El Salvador on Wednesday. But it is also four points clear of the second-placed Americans, while Mexico is third on goal difference after being held to a goalless draw by fifth-placed Costa Rica.
With the team now facing a possibly decisive trip to El Salvador on Wednesday – Herdman called it a “Cup final” – goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who instinctively tipped one game-changing save onto the crossbar two minutes before halftime, summed up the feeling inside Canada’s dressing room perfectly.
“We want the world to respect Canada,” he said, after ensuring his side wrapped up a fifth consecutive win.
Herdman, who has orchestrated one of the more remarkable turnarounds of an international soccer program in recent history, guiding the men’s team to the verge of a first World Cup appearance since 1986, added to the notion of his team’s relentless pursuit of history.
“This group of men know they’ve got an opportunity to leave a football legacy forever,” he said.
Sunday’s match wasn’t quite the full-blown winter welcome that Canada provided Mexico in Edmonton last November, but Tim Hortons Field was a more-than-adequate stand-in. With some seemingly less passionate soccer fans turning laps on a triangular skating rink just beyond the south end, Hamilton served up frosty -4 C temperatures at kickoff.
That gave the home side an early opportunity to seize something of a mental edge, with seven from Canada’s starting lineup taking the field in short sleeves, versus just two hardy souls from among their American counterparts.
Fittingly for a game played at a CFL venue, the winning goal was something out of football lore. A goal kick from U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner got caught in one of Hamilton’s famed gusts of wind, preventing the ball from leaving the American half. Kamal Miller and Jonathan Osorio quickly combined to get the ball up to Larin, who played a one-two with strike partner Jonathan David to get behind the U.S. backline, where he deposited the ball beyond Turner into the far corner.
For Larin, who grew up playing hockey in Brampton, Ont., before he embarked on a soccer journey that has now taken him to the capital of Turkey, where he plays for reigning Super Lig champion Besiktas, the moment will live long in the memory.
Not only was it his 12th World Cup qualifying goal this cycle – putting him in the top three in history for the CONCACAF region – but it was his 23rd strike for the men’s national team, putting him clear of Dwayne De Rosario as the team’s career scoring leader.
It was the perfect start for a Canadian team that is only too happy to protect a lead these days, with its five goals conceded the best defensive record in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
“We’re a brotherhood, right,” Adekugbe said. “We defend hard together and we want to be the team in CONCACAF that concedes the least [amount of] goals.
“We knew if we kept a clean sheet we had enough quality in the attack to get goals.”
Without Alphonso Davies, out with the heart condition myocarditis, and key midfield cog Stephen Eustaquio, who recently contracted COVID-19, Canada was mostly on the back foot throughout, with the United States enjoying a 64-36 possession edge.
“I don’t think [Canada] dominated much of anything tonight,” was how U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter summed it up afterward.
But Canada certainly dominated on the scoresheet, particularly once Adekugbe picked up the ball just inside the U.S. half, racing in on goal before placing a shot just beyond Turner to give the home side an unassailable advantage. It was Adekugbe’s first goal for Canada.
“It’s a huge win for all of us,” Osorio said. “This is one of the better teams in the world that we just played against but we protected our home field in a tough game for a lot of different factors, but it just goes to show what a family this team is.”
It’s a family that may well be flying the Canadian flag on one of the world’s grandest sporting stages come November.