When the Gold Cup schedule was announced, the assumption in the Canadian soccer community would be that Les Rouges, expected to finish second behind Mexico in Group A, would face a quarter-final date with Costa Rica, heavily favoured to win Group B.
Except that Haiti flipped the script. By beating Costa Rica 2-1 in the Group B finale, Haiti took first place. And, the quarter-final between Canada and the Caribbean upstarts promises to be a match-up of the two rising stars of CONCACAF. Both nations are on steep ascents.
While Canada has its sights set squarely on the bigger prize of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, the Haitians have quickly built a program that may have them supplant the likes of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago as the giants of Caribbean football.
Canadian men’s national team coach John Herdman admitted his team shocked to learn that they’d be facing Haiti, not Costa Rica. The program was doing “deep-dive scouting” on the Costa Ricans, and he admits everyone in the Canadian camp was shocked to see Haiti triumph in their group.
But he said the mission remains the same, no matter the opponent. This Gold Cup is Canada’s coming out party.
“The players are very clear on what their mission is,” said Herdman. “It’s to bring respect to our flag. And, in the football world, it’s to really step forward with a talented group. So I think the pressure is already on in terms of, internally, of what they want to achieve… They are very clear that they have to step forward in this tournament.”
And Canadian striker Jonathan David, who had a hat trick against Cuba, has Haitian roots. Herdman, though, expects the emerging striker to keep a level head.
“I think with Jonathan, it’s keep doing what you’re doing,” Herdman said. “Be on task. The processes here are very deliberate around preparation for the games, so there’s a consistency in the team approach. And, individually, who will have that connect with Jonathan? … I think the critical path for him is that he’s clear on his task.”
As for the opposition?
“I think, this year, Haiti is the new Haiti,” striker Duckens Nazon said on the Gold Cup broadcast right after the win over Costa Rica. Nazon scored on a penalty in to begin Haiti’s rally from 1-0 down.
Nazon and fellow striker Frantzdy Pierrot are emblematic of what Haiti is about as a national side. Political strife, poverty and, more recently, the earthquake, have forced many Haitians to leave the island and settle elsewhere. This team is made up of players who grew up elsewhere, but clung to Haitian national pride — and the passports, too.
Nazon, who spent part of last season on loan at Scottish side St. Mirren, was born in France. Pierrot, who scored six goals for Royal Excel Mouscron of Belgium’s Jupiler League this past season, is from Boston, went to Coastal Carolina and then was selected in the MLS SuperDraft by the Colorado Rapids. But he opted to chase his dream of playing in Europe.
Pierrot scored twice in the group-stage win over Bermuda and in a pre-Gold Cup friendly against Chile.
What else do we know about the Haitians? They do a lot with a little. Herdman noted that Costa Rica had the territorial advantage and the possession stats heavily in its favour, but Haiti’s counterattack was effective.
“I think there’s an element of physicality and their athleticism,” said Herdman. “If you watched that game, you’d see that they were pretty lethal on the counterattack.”
In the narrow 2-1 loss to Chile, the Haitians had just 27 per cent of the ball. In group-stage wins over Nicaragua and Costa Rica, just 30 per cent possession in each of those. So, the more you have the ball, the more likely it is Haiti can catch you napping.
Canada will have a lot of the ball when the team face each other in Houston. They’ll be facing, judging by the Haitian contingent at the win over Costa Rica, a hostile crowd cheering for the boys in blue, er, bleu. But, if Canada tries to force the attack, the Haitians are happy to shoot from all over the pitch and counter quickly.
They’re not all that concerned with playing lateral football.
So, Canada has to ensure not just possession, but not to overcommit and leave gaps when Haiti counters. They’re not going to score seven like they did against Cuba, but the Canadians will likely have a lot of the ball going into the final third.
But, when shots are blocked or a pass is loose, the Canadians can’t be short on troops hanging back when the Haitians bust loose. You can out-possess and out-chance Haiti for the better part of 90 minutes, but all that work can be undone by a quick counter. And Haiti is converting those counters, right now.