Ascendant Canada closing in on World Cup berth after beating United States
HAMILTON - Only an unthinkable collapse stands between Canada's men's national team and their first World Cup appearance since 1986.
In frigid conditions, Canada topped cross-border rival the United States 2-0 in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying to maintain an advantageous place atop the eight-team group.
Cyle Larin established a new men's scoring record with his 23rd international goal early in the match, and Sam Adekugbe sealed the deal in added time as Canada claimed another famous victory to remain unbeaten in the third and final round of qualifiers.
With four matches to play, The Reds have 22 points, four clear of the U.S. and Mexico. The top three teams automatically qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, while the fourth-place finisher will face the winner of the Oceania region in the intercontinental playoffs for a spot at the quadrennial event.
Canada coach John Herdman made three changes to the side that won 1-0 in Honduras on Thursday, inserting Jonathan Osorio, Richie Laryea, and Kamal Miller into the starting XI at the expense of Junior Hoilett, Samuel Piette, and Atiba Hutchinson. Herdman's opposite, Gregg Berhalter, also made three alterations to his side in the form of Gyasi Zardes, Brenden Aaronson, and Miles Robinson.
Canada, the 40th-ranked side in the FIFA Rankings, opened the scoring against the run of play in the seventh minute when Miller headed U.S. 'keeper Matt Turner's goal kick into Osorio's path, prompting the Toronto FC midfielder to play a deft back-heel flick toward Larin. Larin then connected with Jonathan David on a give-and-go sequence 15 yards from the American penalty area before the Besiktas striker fired a right-footed effort into the far corner beyond a helpless Turner.
The U.S. narrowly missed the equalizer minutes before the interval. Amid emphatic chants of "overrated" from the home support, Chelsea attacker Christian Pulisic fired an incisive corner kick into the Canadian penalty area that Weston McKennie headed on goal, only to be denied by Milan Borjan's fingertip save and a forgiving ricochet off the woodwork.
Scrappy affair, challenging conditions
Berhalter's charges controlled the brunt of possession through the opening 45 minutes in a disjointed affair that highlighted Canada's penchant for resourceful defending and swift counter-attacking play.
Aaronson had an opportunity to level the scoreline just before the hour mark when the Red Bull Salzburg standout fired a strike directly into the arms of Borjan. Berhalter then made an attack-minded triple-change in the 69th minute, bringing on Jordan Morris, Ricardo Pepi, and Kellyn Acosta.
Canada nearly made it 2-0 seconds later when sloppy play from the U.S. in their own final third afforded both Larin and David point-blank opportunities that Turner did well to parry away from danger. The U.S. made two more changes in the 76th minute that were all for naught as the World No. 11 outfit struggled to string together passes in attacking avenues to the delight of the home crowd.
Canadian defenders Miller and Adekugbe were particularly effective at breaking up play and sapping what little momentum the U.S. was able to manufacture in the waning moments. It was far from aesthetically pleasing, but it was comprehensive for a Canadian side that defended in numbers.
Adekugbe was rewarded for his efforts when the Hatayspor defender caught the U.S. on the counter and slotted past Turner in added time to make it 2-0.
Changing the narrative
Much of Canada's stellar World Cup qualifying campaign and the storylines associated with it have focused on the past.
Part of that can be attributed to a neatly packaged narrative that makes for a compelling story, and part of it is rooted in facts. For a nation with few previous soccer triumphs, the current qualifying campaign has been highlighted by firsts: Canada has snatched its first victory in Honduras in 37 years and the first win over Mexico in 21 years. Those triumphs come on the heels of a first Gold Cup semifinal in 14 years and the team's first win against the U.S. in 34 years, marking a period of unprecedented feats. Make that two wins against the U.S. now.
Next up for Canada is a trip to San Salvador to face El Salvador on Wednesday before closing out qualifiers with a trio of matchups in late March against Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Panama. It's time to start making plans for Qatar, but don't tell coach Herdman that.
Asked about the prospects of playing in Qatar, Herdman was understandably mum. "Not until those points are in the bag," he told theScore during the post-match press conference.
"We have to treat the match in El Salvador like a cup final," Herdman added, doing his best to conceal a cheeky smile.