Canadian men’s national team defender Alistair Johnston and head coach John Herdman speak to media ahead of their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying match against the United States Sunday.
FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Qualifiers United States vs. Canada September 5, 2021 at 8:00 pm ET Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tennessee
Watch live on TSN 1, 4 & TSN.ca
It may not have begun quite as perfectly as hoped, but the Canadian men’s national team’s bout in the Octagon is well and truly underway. After kicking off this final round of FIFA World Cup Qualifying on Thursday with a 1-1 draw against Honduras at BMO Field, Canada have headed down to Music City for a clash with the United States on Sunday night.
Both of these two teams began the Octagonal stage by picking up a point; the Americans played on the road in El Salvador on Thursday, where they drew 0-0 to open their campaign. In fact, six of the eight teams in this round of qualifying have one point after the first game — only Mexico managed to scrape a win with a late goal at home against Jamaica.
There’s a lot of pressure on this United States team heading into this year’s World Cup Qualifying, having stumbled at this stage last time, failing to reach the 2018 World Cup (the first they’d missed since 1986). Just as Canada have seen the rise of Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Tajon Buchanan, and many others, the U.S. have a young, talented team at the beginning of what looks like a strong generation of players — Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tyler Adams, just to start.
Canada, sitting 59th in the FIFA World Rankings right now, have made up some ground on their top Concacaf rivals, but the U.S. still remains among the world’s elite as the 10th-ranked side. That said, recent contests on the pitch between these sides have been much closer than that. Canada played the United States in the group stage of the Gold Cup this past summer, where the Americans won 1-0 thanks to a very early goal, but the Canadians were arguably the better team for most of the 90 minutes.
Of course, these sides also traded blows in the 2019 Concacaf Nations League, where Canada won 2-0 at BMO Field before losing 4-1 in Orlando the next month. This is certainly becoming a less lopsided rivalry than it has been in the past, though, which is a sentiment echoed among the Canadian players who would love to take points off their neighbours to the south.
“There’s no fear,” Canada midfielder Samuel Piette recently said on Beyond the Pitch with Kristian Jack. “I think too often we came into games where we were obviously the underdogs and we didn’t really know if we should’ve played just for the tie and defend, but that mentality changed a lot. I think that’s the culture we installed.”
Harkening back to that specific contest against the U.S. at the Gold Cup, Piette added: “It’s a different tournament, different circumstances, it’s a lot bigger now, but I think what we did in the Gold Cup was set the tone. Yes, against the U.S., but against every team, we sent a message that, hey, we’re the team, and we’re gonna try to compete against anybody. Especially against the U.S. I think that’s what we did, we conceded that goal that was very avoidable, but I think we tried to change that rivalry, and it’s not just the U.S. was gonna be on top of Canada and Canada just defending, absorbing the attacks. I think that game was totally different. We had 25, 30 minutes that were pretty sloppy, but after I think we dominated the game and we should have scored and maybe won.
“It was also to put a doubt in the U.S.’s mind that we’re a good team now and this is not the Canada from a couple years ago. That was the main objective from that game, from that tournament. We don’t fear anyone, but I’m pretty sure the U.S. has some doubt about us.”
Indeed, Canada will fancy themselves as the toughest test the Americans will face in this window — their third match will be a trip to Honduras on Wednesday — and they know the U.S. may have some nerves, desperately wanting all three points in their only home game of the three.
Crépeau reflected on the differences between his first senior national team experience — a 2014 camp where Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. — and now: “Now we play them, the narrative of the game is completely different; it’s a head to head game and both teams are going at each other… The narrative is changing a little bit in both teams. I think it’s unfair to say that the U.S. is not afraid or concerned about us. I think it’s a lie, they know exactly that we are coming for them.”
Canada hasn’t beaten the United States in World Cup Qualifying since 1980. Is Sunday the day they turn that around?
3 THINGS TO WATCH:
Rested reinforcements for Canada? With these World Cup Qualifying games coming in grueling three-game rotations within each window, there’s real value in having certain players fresh for each individual match. Perhaps by design, Canada was able to keep a few key contributors out of the Honduras game on Thursday, who may well come in handy down in Nashville. Mark-Anthony Kaye and Jonathan Osorio, in particular, were notable exclusions from that game, with John Herdman opting for Stephen Eustaquio and Atiba Hutchinson as a two-man midfield. Kaye feels like a lock to start in Nashville for Canada — though probably alongside Eustaquio — and, depending on the tactics, Osorio could also draw in as a more attacking midfielder. Sam Piette could also be an option to try and break up the opponent’s rhythm. Against an American central unit that features a lot of quality in Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, Canada will need players who are comfortable on the ball and able to get between lines. Plus, Herdman has some options for rotation at the back as well, in Scott Kennedy and Doneil Henry.
Plenty of starpower on both sides: So many of Canada’s players are now plying their trade in top European leagues: Alphonso Davies at Bayern Munich, Jonathan David at Lille, and so on. However, the U.S. lineup might boast an even more impressive list of clubs, with many of their youngsters (much like Canada’s) making big moves in the past couple years. Striker Josh Sargent plays in the Premier League for Norwich City; Weston McKennie plays for Juventus in Serie A; 18-year-old Gio Reyna is an increasingly important player (and a foil to Davies) at Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga. Plus, there’s the biggest name in this U.S. squad: Christian Pulisic. The 22-year-old has recently broken into the first team at Chelsea, for whom he came off the bench in last May’s UEFA Champions League final. Pulisic missed the game in El Salvador, still recovering from a recent bout of COVID-19, but it sounds like he should be ready to play against Canada in Nashville. He’ll be a major wrinkle in this game if he is able to play, considering it’s been a few months since his previous national team appearance (early June in the Concacaf Nations League final). Regardless, Canada will feel like they have the quality to match their rivals, so expect a fascinating clash with plenty of fireworks — though perhaps not the same kind of fireworks as they had down in San Salvador…
Canada can learn from U.S. draw vs. El Salvador: The prevailing sentiment among American soccer media after their side’s 0-0 draw in El Salvador on Thursday was that very few questions about this national team were answered. With the majority of their players making World Cup Qualifying debuts, playing in front of a frenzied Estadio Cuscatlán (yes, CanPL readers, that Estadio Cuscatlán), it was a real trial by fire, but with such pedigree on the pitch, the Americans left the game with some muddled emotions. It’s likely that coach Gregg Berhalter makes at least a couple changes for this game against Canada, but much of the squad will be the same. John Herdman has surely watched that game several times by now, and there’s a lot to learn from the American performance in El Salvador. FC Barcelona fullback Sergino Dest had a particularly poor night, unable to offer much in attack and getting burned frequently on the back foot; it seems likely he moves from the left over to his more natural right side this time (in place of DeAndre Yedlin), but that would put him directly up against Alphonso Davies. The U.S. opted for a back three when they played Canada at the Gold Cup, which Herdman may choose to match with one of his own, but the Canadian defenders need to be on their toes against an American side that likes to press high and threaten the centre-backs. Above all, Canada need to be vigilant in the middle. McKennie and Adams are world class central midfielders playing at a very high level in the club game, and if the Canadians allow them to set the tempo and dictate play it could be a long night. It’s important not to give them too much time and space on the ball in possession.