FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Qualifiers Honduras vs. Canada January 27, 2022 at 8:05 pm ET Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula, Honduras
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Back into the lion’s den we go.
The Canadian men’s national team returns for the first time in 2022 on Thursday, as they continue the final round of Concacaf World Cup Qualifying by opening this fourth match window against Honduras. John Herdman’s side will enter the notorious Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula for the first time under his reign, hoping to put some more history behind them.
The cavernous blue theatre is a venue in which Canada have never won. Four times they’ve faced it since Honduras began playing national team matches there, and only once have they claimed so much as a point — and in 2004, at that, with three defeats since. On Honduran soil, Canada have an all-time record of one win, three draws, and seven defeats, that only triumph coming in a World Cup qualifier back in 1985.
Few memories are darker for the Canadian men’s team than one of those defeats in San Pedro Sula; the catastrophic 8-1 loss in 2012, where Canada needed just a draw to get to the final World Cup Qualifying round, has weighed heavily on the program for almost a decade now. That’s why this group would like nothing better than to exorcise those particular demons on Thursday.
The Canadians have done a lot of narrative-changing in this WCQ cycle. Just getting to this final stage was something they hadn’t done for over 20 years, and they’ve followed that up with enormous results. They beat Mexico in Edmonton; they took a point from both the U.S. and the Mexicans away from home; they crushed El Salvador and Panama in Toronto. This, their first real foray into the Central American arena for this generation, is another test for them to embrace.
“We’re relishing that opportunity,” Herdman told reporters on Wednesday. “We’ve seen all the previous experiences of the national team and there’s no denying that it’s a place where if you don’t get excited for it, it can really consume the mentality of the players. We had a mentality going into the Azteca, and we’ve built a similar frame of mind for here. It’s really going in to be tested, and looking forward to being tested by the crowd, the Honduran team that are really fighting for their World Cup survival.”
Canada, quite rightly, enter this game with heads held high. They’re first in the Octagonal standings on 16 points — one up on the United States and two up on Mexico and Panama — and they’re in pole position to claim one of the three automatic qualification slots for the World Cup in Qatar next winter. They’re desperate to remain in that top three, though, and avoid falling to fourth place (which would send them to an intercontinental playoff for a final World Cup spot) — or worse.
“Nothing changes,” Herdman said. “We might be sitting here with only six games left to go, but we’ve seen this. You’re only one game away from it being a disaster and all of a sudden you’re sitting third or even fourth in the group, and that’s what it’s been like. We’ve had to keep ourselves humble here, and it has to be just another day at the office, not to allow all of that clutter to come in.”
Herdman revealed that Canada has close to a full squad for Thursday’s game, aside from the glaring absence of Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies. Stephen Eustáquio has yet to join up with the team in camp as he awaits medical clearance, so he’s unlikely to play in this match but could still participate at some point this window. Goalkeeper Jayson Leutwiler will also join the squad in Honduras after missing their brief pre-camp training stint in Florida.
Honduras, meanwhile, are fighting for their World Cup Qualifying lives on Thursday. With eight matches played in the Octagon, they have yet to win one; they have three draws, including one in the first game of this final round, a 1-1 stalemate at BMO Field against Canada. Since that first meeting in September, Honduras have made a coaching change, with Hernán Darío Gómez — formerly manager of Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama — replacing Fabián Coito in October.
They sit at the bottom of the Octagon with three points, so they’ll be desperate to pick up some more this window as they try and return to the World Cup after qualifying in 2010 and 2014, and narrowly missing the 2018 tournament after losing the intercontinental playoff to Australia.
Both sides will be expecting a feisty contest on Thursday night. Can Les Rouges make some more history, and take one more step toward Qatar?
Despite their record in the Octagon, the Hondurans are a very talented team. Though they sit 76th in the FIFA World Rankings — well back of Canada in 40th at the moment — they have a dangerous attack that has yet to fully hit its stride in World Cup Qualifying so far. Honduras is fairly consistent in approach, usually deploying a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formation and looking to play direct, transitional football. Their current squad, probably their strongest yet in WCQ with more key players healthy, has a strong balance of players who know each other well from playing together in the domestic league and high-impact stars who play at strong levels of the club game.
Up front, the attacking trio of Alberth Elis (Girondins de Bordeaux), Anthony Lozano (Cádiz), and Romell Quioto (CF Montréal) can cause a lot of problems. The trio has yet to start a game together in the Octagon, each of them missing quite a few matches due to injury, but whatever combination the Hondurans use is sure to be a threat to Canada. At the back, they have a group of defenders with excellent chemistry; four of the nine play for Motagua, with three at Real España. Plus, captain Maynor Figueroa — with 179 caps to his name — will be extremely familiar with whatever setup they opt for.
Canada boss Herdman pointed out Wednesday that Honduras actually have some good underlying numbers for how they’ve performed at home in WCQ. They’re third in expected goals (behind Canada and Mexico) for their home matches, and they average 17 shots per game in San Pedro Sula. Herdman added that, according to his metrics, Honduras have the best transitional stats in all of Concacaf in terms of how they produce chances and shots from quick changes of possession.
“Under the new coach there wasn’t a massive identity shift because he didn’t have a great amount of time to work with them in those windows, but what you’ve got to see with Honduras is they’re a different proposition to what they are away.”
“The story is very clear, they’re a very strong transitional team with the likes of Quioto, Elis, Lozano. That ability to threaten your backline within one or two passes; if you go have a look at the last five goals they’ve scored there’s a clear trend for them. And when you listen to them in the media, the players, they’re talking about, ‘This is it,’ this is their last chance — one, to gain respect from their fans, and two, to keep their World Cup dream alive. It’s gonna be a hell of a fight.”
Rotation and balance in attack without Davies
With attacking sparkplug Alphonso Davies unavailable this window, Herdman has the difficult task of deploying a new-look attack without him. Canada have, of course, played without their superstar and found success in 2021; they got to the Gold Cup semi-final without him, and they beat El Salvador 3-0 in September after he picked up an injury. Still, it’ll be a challenge for Herdman to find out how best to use his attacking group over the three matches in this window.
The three games come in short succession with a lot of travel in between, so all the attackers in the squad are likely to see some playing time. The teamsheet for Thursday is hard to predict, though, not knowing how Herdman wants to approach Honduras tactically or which games he wants to prioritize. In the last game against Honduras, he started both Jonathan David and Cyle Larin as dual strikers, but that’s not a structure he’s used since, so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise for one of the star forwards to play on the wing or even start from the bench in San Pedro Sula.
Meanwhile, a number of other attackers will be keen on seizing this opportunity. Tajon Buchanan will have a huge role, whether he’s deployed as a winger or even a wingback, and Junior Hoilett was an attacker who played very well in the second half last time against Honduras (replacing Buchanan at halftime). Even Iké Ugbo, Lucas Cavallini, and Liam Millar will be in contention for spots.
“I’ve got so many talented players, that’s always the hardest thing in the forward line,” Herdman said.
“I think we’ve got players who are really hungry to have that opportunity and to take that limelight. And I also think with Alphonso, in the last two matches, teams tactically have been able to put a lot of attention on him and nullify elements of what he’s able to do for us. In some ways it’s always a curse and in other ways it’s a gift, and as a coach, I’ve got to look at the glass half full… Everyone was devastated when they got the news, nobody more than me, just more from a personal level because he brings such an infectious spirit to the group; you know when Phonzie’s here, so we’ll miss that.”
Hoilett, one of the players in contention for a significant role on Thursday, added: “With the amount of games in a short amount of time you have to swap and change, and be adaptable in different formations. We’re fortunate to have that depth in each position, and fortunate to have the quality as well.”
Stay out of trouble
Matches in Central America are renowned for their hostile atmosphere and aggressive play on the pitch. This trip to San Pedro Sula is sure to be no different, particularly with the Hondurans so desperate for a result. The key for Canada in this game will be to keep their heads and stay out of trouble, not allowing themselves to be sucked into any extracurriculars or allow the moment or their emotions to get the best of them.
There are plenty of stories about what it’s like to play as a visitor in countries like Honduras or El Salvador, but many of the young players on this Canadian team have not yet experienced that atmosphere. Veterans like Atiba Hutchinson and Milan Borjan have, and they will likely impart some wisdom to their younger teammates, but it may well be a good thing that this group isn’t burdened with the unpleasant memory of previous visits to Central America. They’ll be able to play fearlessly, just as they did when they took on Mexico at the Azteca in October, but they’ll need to adapt to the conditions quickly — perhaps more quickly than they did in Jamaica that same window.
“I think this is the first real test of coming into the Central American region,” Herdman said.
He added: “Now we’re coming into those environments, a bit like Haiti, where you know the pitch is going to be an issue. We faced that in Jamaica, the first 10 minutes it was nice and then it starts cutting up, and it has an impact on the style of play and if you don’t adapt quickly, you get punished… It’s a similar condition to Jamaica, you might get this heat, this humidity, it’ll be sticky, the pitch will be slow, the pitch will be thick grass and heavy and it’s going to cut up.
“Even with my selections, I’ve got to think about those players that can manage technically the type of pressure from Honduras, and how the pitch will play. So a lot of factors that are coming in, and again I feel like this experience, El Salvador and Honduras, is going to be our first real taste of Concacaf in many ways.”
Canada also need to be wary of getting too caught up in the physical aspects. A handful of players are carrying yellow cards — Mark-Anthony Kaye, Sam Adekugbe, Doneil Henry, Steven Vitória, Richie Laryea, and Stephen Eustáquio could all be in danger of suspension if they pick up another caution. Honduras, likewise, have nine players on a yellow, including both Elis and Lozano. With so many players toeing that line (as well as the introduction of VAR in this window), perhaps the on-pitch hostilities could be dampened somewhat?
Honduras wins: 11 || Canada wins: 7 || Draws: 8
September 2, 2021 — Honduras 1-1 Canada
“The battle, the fight, that’s gonna be front and centre for at least the first 20 minutes. If we’re not up for that, we’ll get overrun with, number one, the Hondurans’ power and quality, and number two, the fans that will follow them.” — Canada coach John Herdman
“We’ve got the most fearless youngsters in the Canadian national team, that brings joy to me. Knowing I’m around that crop of players that are not scared to show what they have and what they can bring, and they know that when they go on the pitch they can do whatever they want.” — defender Doneil Henry on Beyond the Pitch
“Everybody’s fighting for each and every one of us and rooting for each other. It’s exciting, everybody comes in with high spirits, a brotherhood culture, and it pushes us through games.” — attacker Junior Hoilett