A challenging trip to Haiti ended Saturday with a win and a valuable away goal for Canada in its quest to advance in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
The 70th-ranked Canadian men put on a composed, professional performance in the most difficult of conditions, defeating a physical Haiti side 1-0 in steamy heat on a sticky artificial surface at an empty Stade Sylvio Cator.
Canada and No. 83 Haiti meet again Tuesday at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Ill., to decide who advances to the final round of qualifying in the region that covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
“We knew if we could score early and score first, then we could take control of the game,” said Canada coach John Herdman.
“We go back to Chicago with some control on our destiny” he added.
Cyle Larin gave Canada the lead in the 14th minute thanks to some fine buildup work. Mark-Anthony Kaye started the play with a through ball that found Jonathan Osorio down the right flank. Osorio, celebrating his 29th birthday, sent over a low cross that curved past three defenders and goalkeeper Johny Placide, allowing Larin a simple tap-in.
It was Larin’s 14th international goal - and sixth in the five World Cup qualifiers to date.
Canada had 61 per cent of the possession in the first half, scoring on one of its two shots on target. Haiti showed some more offence in the second half but was unable to breach the Canadian defence.
“That was the exciting thing tonight, I think, from our guys. They showed that they can grind it out,” said Herdman. “We’ve been criticized in the past for not grinding out performances on the road. This is as tough a place as I’ve seen and been.”
Canada has not made the final round of CONCACAF qualifying since the lead-up to France ’98.
The three second-round playoff winners in CONCACAF join Mexico, the U.S., Jamaica, Costa Rica and Honduras in the so-called Octagonal beginning in September. The top three teams from that round-robin book their ticket to Qatar 2022. The fourth-place finisher moves into an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
The Haiti trip was akin to a soccer smash-and-grab. The Canadians chartered in Friday and left for the airport after the game, with Herdman fading in and out on a post-game call to reporters from the team’s security convoy -- with an accompanying soundtrack of honking horns and other traffic noise.
“Just bear with us. I’m getting thrown around everywhere,” he said.
The chaos of the trip was compounded by a harrowing scene 8,000 kilometres away in Copenhagen, where Danish star Christian Eriksen collapsed during a Euro 2020 game with Finland. The sporting world was left in shock at the sight of the Inter Milan star receiving extensive emergency treatment on the field before Eriksen was taken to hospital where he was listed in stable condition.
Herdman said his players were watching the incident before the game.
“It was a chaotic afternoon,” he said. “We knew the boys were watching the Euros and, yeah, it was a horrific moment. The news circulated internally and our prayers were going out to Eriksen and his family. You never want to see that in football.
“For us the mental team (staff) got on top of it very quickly and made sure we had a couple of little strategies to ensure the players could reset, refocus.”
Adding to the chaos was the fact the team’s COVID-19 tests were late coming back.
“It was just a crazy three hours prior to the game,” said Herdman. “Which set us up, I think, for the chaos that we were expecting on the field. It’s been a wild ride over here. And it’s a real eye-opener for any footballer to come to this country and just see what it is.”
FIFA aside, all advice was to stay away from Haiti.
The U.S. government travel advisory was short and not very sweet, saying “Do not travel to Haiti due to kidnapping, crime, civil unrest and COVID-19.” The Canadian government and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention echoed that warning.
Peter Montopoli, general secretary of Canada Soccer, said his organization had had “many discussions” with FIFA about the merits of staging a game in Haiti. Montopoli said Canada Soccer had requested extra security and medical staff plus, “experienced staff on the ground.”
The Haiti team didn’t put out much of a welcome wagon on the field. It was 33 degrees Celsius at kickoff and the Haitians wasted little time turning up the heat.
Haiti forward Frantzdy Pierrot set the tone when he was booked in the second minute for scything down Canadian defender Scott Kennedy.
The Haitians treated Alphonso Davies like a piñata all game.
In the 16th minute, a sliding Stephane Lambese took down Davies with the Bayern Munich star slow to get up. Jeppe Simonsen was booked in the 40th minute for pulling Davies down. And Davies took some more lumps in the 88th minute with Jems Geffrard, who plays for HFX Wanderers FC in the Canadian Premier League, booked for sending him flying through the air.
The 20-year-old Davies didn’t complain. He just got up and kept running at the opposition.
“You could see the maturity,” said Herdman.
Herdman made two changes to the starting 11 that beat Suriname 4-0 Tuesday in Bridgeview. Steven Vitoria came in for Doneil Henry at the heart of the Canadian defence and Kaye slotted in for Samuel Piette in the midfield.
The Canadian starting 11 had a combined 206 caps going into the match with Osorio, Larin and goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who retained the captain’s armband, accounting for 121 of those. The starters had an average age of 25.
Both teams had chances early in the second half.
Placide stopped Jonathan David on a breakaway in the 52nd minute. A minute later, an acrobatic Borjan had to reach high to palm away a Pierrot bicycle kick from close-range.
The Haitians began to pose a few more problems, causing some goalmouth chaos on a corner.
Davies put a free kick on target in the 63rd minute, with Placide punching the ball away. Placide then stopped David in the 75th after a rampaging run up the middle by Davies.
The Canadians held a 7-2-2 edge over Haiti going into the match but the Haitians won last time out, rallying from a 2-0 deficit to beat Canada 3-2 in the quarterfinals of the 2019 Gold Cup.
Both teams were unbeaten in the first round of World Cup qualifying.