You ever have one of those nights at work?
Canada’s men’s national soccer team, version 2022.0, doesn’t. Or didn’t, until Thursday in Costa Rica.
Everything has gone absolutely right for the Canadians during their run to the World Cup. Even when they’ve been bad, they’ve been bad with ambition.
So in the spirit of really going for it, Canada decided to cram all of its bone-headed plays, all its distemper and every iota of bad luck into one 90-minute span.
Canada lost 1-0 to Costa Rica. It was the Canadians’ first loss in 12 games during this final phase of qualifying.
It can still qualify for Qatar on Sunday in Toronto against Jamaica. But not if the Canadians do this again.
Where did it all go wrong?
Maybe the prelims were a hint.
Canadian manager John Herdman is not usually given to predictions. But maybe he sensed his team needed more than the usual try-to-have-fun-out-there pep talk.
“Tonight’s everything for us. For our country,” Herdman said. “I think they’re going to take it.”
You had a feeling right then.
The Costa Ricans, grasping at World Cup straws in a country that doesn’t like that sort of thing, began proceedings with fireworks. And we’re not talking a couple of bottle rockets as the home team ran out. They lit off what seemed like 10 solid minutes of Born on the Fourth of July. The celebrations took them halfway through the Canadian anthem.
When the barrage stopped and the music could be heard, the crowd could be heard lustily booing.
Not all Central and South American nations are soccer giants. But they all care. A lot.
The majority of this qualifying season, coinciding with the pandemic, has happened in half-empty stadiums. This was the first time in a long time the Canadians faced a sold-out, hostile crowd in enemy territory.
All of it – the noise, the animus, the stakes – appeared to turn the Canadians’ heads. It doesn’t help that they continue playing without their injured first-among-equals, Alphonso Davies.
The Costa Ricans were soon up to their tricks, treating the field like a slip-and-slide whenever a Canadian got within brushing distance of them. That put everyone ill at ease from the off.
However, Canada did get away with one early.
Midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye left an upturned foot hanging in the air during a less than 50-50 challenge, and spiked an opponent. That should have been a red card.
But Kaye got away with a yellow. You thought then that the shifts of momentum would start see-sawing from that point on.
But 20 minutes later, Canada hadn’t got stuck in, so Kaye figured it was his turn to do so. He was taken to the ground roughly. After a little lie-down, he popped up, found the guy who’d done him wrong and put an irritated shoulder into him.
Sadly, this isn’t hockey. There is no code. The Costa Rican dropped like he’d been hit in the head with a wrench. Kaye was sent off for a second yellow.
As he got to the sidelines, Kaye could be seen asking the fourth official if they could review the incident on instant replay. No. They don’t do that in soccer. He probably should have asked that one before the game started.
From there on it went pear-shaped in a hurry. Canadian goalie Milan Borjan went to sleep on a kick out and put the ball into the leg of a lurking Costa Rican. Only blind luck prevented it from caroming back into the net.
Canada went to sleep again in extra time at the end of the half, letting in a soft header. The Costa Rican who scored the goal was standing in the spot where Kaye would have been.
In the second half, Canada began counter-punching. It made steady progress on the flanks. The Costa Ricans tried to back up the bus, but had apparently mislaid their keys.
Good Canadian chance after good Canadian chance went begging. The most painful miss was a dipping Tajon Buchanan header that beat the ‘keeper. It even seemed to beat the crossbar, but it could not beat the angle. A ball that looked like it should have bounced in bounced out instead.
This is why you don’t ever want to go down in front of a crowd that wishes you extreme ill. They make you doubt yourself.
If any Costa Rican deserved the game ball, it was the audience. They never flagged, even in the moments when their team did.
On some level, this could be a good thing. Canada gets the quick rebound opportunity this coming weekend. The Jamaicans give up goals like that’s the point of the game. The forecast in Toronto is cold and miserable.
A dreary late winter afternoon on weather-resistant turf in front of several thousand long-suffering soccer masochists – that’s the perfect place for Canada to celebrate this unexpected renaissance.
On another level, it’s still Canada’s men’s team and it’s still soccer. Pooching it entirely at this stage is virtually impossible. But the old paranoia dies hard. No one’s going to believe this is done until a scoreboard says so.
This is where Herdman becomes the most valuable member of his own team. It’s on him to prevent the dark clouds from gathering over this group.
At the same time, he has to watch out for bursts of irrational exuberance. Jamaica still has its pride. Putting Canada in an awful spot would help with that.
Everything about this streak – even Thursday’s loss – has been shot through with exuberance and possibility. But given the history, it wouldn’t have been right if Canada didn’t start going sideways just before hitting the finish line.
Things are still looking very good, and things can still go wrong.
Enjoy that. That queasy feeling you’ve got right now? That means that for the first time in nearly 40 years, Canadian men’s soccer matters again.