For Canada, next weekend’s Gold Cup quarter-final match will be the first chance to really announce itself to CONCACAF.
Let’s face it — running the table in Nations League qualifying isn’t going to make the soccer aficionados in places like Panama and Costa Rica take notice of how the Canadian men’s national team has changed. In the big picture of global football, laying a thumping on Caribbean federations from places that aren’t actually recognized as independent nations isn’t going to move the needle.
But, when we get to the nitty-gritty of the Gold Cup, Canada starts to rub shoulders — or, more fittingly, clash ankles — with the teams that it must overtake in order to get to Qatar.
Beating Cuba 7-0 on Sunday in Gold Cup action did a lot to pad the stats of Jonathan David and Lucas Cavallini — each with hat tricks — but Cuba isn’t a legitimate CONCACAF player, unless we put on ball gloves and spikes.
Finishing second in Group A means that Canada will face the winner of Group B on June 29 in Houston. Right now, Haiti and Costa Rica are tied for top spot, and still need to play off for the Group B title. Each will be going hard, because the team that finishes second gets Mexico.
And this June 29 is so, so important for Canada. It’s more than a simple quarter-final. This is where the message will be sent.
Where Canada has traditionally failed in CONCACAF is that it doesn’t get the results it needs against that second tier of teams below Mexico. There was that time four years ago when Canada played at home in Toronto and wasn’t able to beat Costa Rica at home in the Gold Cup. Canada wasn’t able to beat El Salvador in the road in World Cup qualifying. Panama on the road in World Cup qualifying is another rough spot, with fans partying outside the team hotel before the game. We all know about the painful history of Canada’s travels to Honduras — though the Honduran program looks to be in a steep decline.
So, whether it’s Costa Rica or the upstart Haitian program, next weekend’s Gold Cup knockout game is important for Canada, because this is really the CONCACAF coming-out party for this team. Lose, and people — even Canada’s own fans — will wonder if it’s the same old, same old. Win, and maybe there’s the feeling that, yes, Canada has announced that we’re here. We won’t be intimidated. We won’t just have to scratch and claw and hope to hang on for draws against the upper tiers of CONCACAF. And, maybe, with David and Cavallini clicking, Canada does have an attack that can legitimately force opposing managers to have a few pre-match sleepless nights.
David, in particular. His finishes look so easy, but have we seen a Canadian forward who does so well when it comes to finding soft spots in opposing defences? Has any Canadian male forward ever timed his runs better? Remember that what look to be easy tap-ins are often the products of outstanding off-the-ball running. And David has just has a knack of knowing where to go, quickly. There’s a football IQ about him that looks to be very special indeed.
Meanwhile, Cavallini has the ability to beat you with one good touch in the box. He can come across defenders and deliver a glancing blow to a cross to send it goalward. The two strikers couldn’t be more different, yet, together, they create a dynamic that’s electric.
And, yes, they should play together. There shouldn’t be a question of one or the other.
But one thing Canadian coach John Herdman has is the luxury of time. The bizarre Gold Cup schedule had Canada play three group-stage games in a little over a week. Now, there’s almost a week off before the elimination game. This means Herdman, unlike the 3-1 loss to Mexico, can go with his best XI, rather than try to manage a squad through a hellish three-game week.
Win next weekend, and we show CONCACAF we’ve arrived. Lose, and, well, 7-0 over Cuba doesn’t matter very much.