Was Canada-Mexico on Tuesday a good soccer game? No.
By any sensible measure of quality, it was terrible. For long stretches, 20 guys doing cardio in the hopes of staying alive and two more guys (the goalkeepers) slowly dying of exposure.
But was it a great spectacle of soccer? It would be hard to think of a match that will stick in the collective memory in quite the same way. This was an Arctic Bowl featuring only one Arctic team. It was a defining moment from a program that has precisely one of those in its history.
Canada’s 2-1 victory puts it in first place and in full control of CONCACAF qualifying for World Cup 2022. You have to go all the way back to … (pages flipping) … to never to find a time a Canadian men’s team was doing this well at this late a stage of the qualifying game.
This wasn’t just a two-hour effort. Operation Freeze Out was well under way from early morning.
At rise-and-shine time, Edmonton had that lovely, coming-climate-apocalypse feel we recognize from disaster movies. Snow was coming down like it was being shot from a great height. Staring out the window of whatever hotel you were trapped in, it looked a lot like 30 Days of Night, minus all the fun vampires.
Presumably, the players on Team Mexico were pulling back their curtains around the same time. We are forced to imagine what its players were thinking, but I’m pretty sure somewhere in the top five thoughts you’d have found “I packed wrong” and “Is forfeiting an option?”
In the early afternoon, the skies cleared and the wind kicked up. By game time, it would be -14C with the windchill.
Sitting in your lobby waiting for a cab that might or might not come, a parade of out-of-town Canadian soccer fans trooped by. A lot of them looked like they were headed for a heated patio – fall coats, jeans and running shoes. Were they headed to the game or a mass casualty event? Only time and frostbite admissions would tell.
How was the artificial turf? Glad you asked – ungreat.
For hours before things started, multiple plows were out there clearing snow. Sideline camera crews had to dig themselves a flat place to shoot from. Snow blower gangs wandered the stands.
In a clear effort at mental warfare, the Canadian players came out to warm up before their allotted time. In an even clearer effort at showing everyone their definition of mental warfare does not extend to spending extra time in -14, the Mexicans were out late and left early. So far, so nationally stereotypical.
A few Canadians even opted to go the old-school offensive line route – shorts without thermal tights. Defender Alistair Johnston went for the gangrene double – t-shirt and short shorts. At least eight inches of bare thigh visible at all times.
During the anthems, pebbles of ice could be seen scattered across the surface of the field like marbles.
So fair to say, this was not a full-speed contest. Or a half-speed contest. More like a quarter-speed contest, with more pumping of the brakes than slamming on them.
The evening’s tone was set in the first minute. As Mexican star Hirving Lozano rose to pick a ball out of the air, Canada’s Doneil Henry pancaked him. This wasn’t a challenge. It was a full-on flying body check that put Lozano flat on his back from a significant height. Instead of the expected slog, we were going to have a fistfight.
It was the sort of game where for stretches the most influential, and often most fun, player on the pitch was the Guatemalan referee. He had a wonderful habit of asserting his authority by sprinting up to any player lipping him off and delivering a gentle chest bump.
After a few minutes of rough stuff, Henry picked up a yellow card. He was in search of his red when he was subbed off in the 37th minute. Humiliating, sure. But Henry’s willingness to go full Bruce Lee at the start clearly put a lot of unpleasant imagery in the heads of the Mexican players.
The first half featured no discernible offence. Things moved along fine in the wide open spaces of midfield, but once in either team’s final third all efforts at connected play came untethered.
So late in the half, Johnson – Canada’s Mr. Freeze – took a shot from a great distance off. It skidded in front of the Mexican goalie, who could only knock it away. It landed on the foot of forward Cyle Larin, who slid it in. 1-0 Canada.
Early in the second half, Canada had a rare free kick in striking distance of the net. While everyone else drifted back toward the goal mouth, Larin sprinted toward it. He was alone in an acre of space and tapped the ball in. 2-0 Canada.
The Mexican team hopped out of the grave in the last five minutes – as you sort of knew it would all along. Suddenly, it was swamping a panicked Canada in injury time. Mexico scored one and came within inches of tying it. But horseshoes and hand grenades and all that.
But that doesn’t change the cold calculus of the result – the continental powerhouse just got lapped by the formerly perennial pipsqueaks.
Losing to the U.S. – as it did last week – was already a major problem for Mexico. The Mexican press didn’t shut up about it here for the entirety of the lead-up. They went so far as to ask Canadian players about it, repeatedly.
If getting beat by a team that routinely makes World Cups is that bad, what does losing to Canada mean? Should they fire the coach or fold the program? Or both?
For the first time in our sporting history, Canada may have an enemy that isn’t Slavic or Scandinavian. That’s progress.
There is a lot of qualifying left – six games over four months. Absolutely nothing is yet likely, never mind guaranteed.
But Canada sent up a flare on Tuesday that can be seen across North America. The Canadians aren’t just coming any more. They’ve arrived.