Top 10 moments in CanMNT’s 2022 World Cup qualification journey

For the first time since 1986, the Canadian men’s national team is on its way to the FIFA World Cup — officially, as of Thursday night.

It’s been a long journey for Canada, not only through the Octagonal round of Concacaf qualification but also through the initial group stage and two-legged playoff tie against Haiti even to get to this final stage. From the very first game, a 5-1 win over Bermuda, right through to this final window, this team has put together an astonishing portfolio of memorable moments that led them to clinching a spot in Qatar.

Far more than these will stand out in memory through the years, but here are 10 of the greatest moments that have defined Canada’s World Cup Qualifying journey in 2021 and 2022.

RELATED: Canada qualifies for 2022 FIFA World Cup with resounding home win vs. Jamaica || O’CONNOR-CLARKE: CanMNT’s euphoric moment must be savoured as new, World Cup-bound era begins

10. Atiba opens the scoring vs. El Salvador

Right now, it’s hard to remember a moment of worry for this Canadian team, but the first window of the Octagonal wasn’t exactly perfect. The opening game, a 1-1 draw with Honduras at BMO Field, drew some — perhaps premature — concern from fans, knowing how crucial it would be to maximize points from home games. So, Canada entered their third game of the September window against El Salvador feeling some pressure to take at least a point and keep pace with the pack.

With Alphonso Davies returning to Germany after the second game of the window due to injury, anxiety among Canadian supporters only grew. Thankfully, though, the nerves did not stick around for long. From kickoff, it was clear that Canada were up for the test, and that they were the superior team on the day.

In just the sixth minute, it was Atiba Hutchinson who allayed fears. Wearing the captain’s armband, the longtime steward of this team was the one who finished a delightful passing move between Jonathan Osorio, Junior Hoilett, and Richie Laryea to give Canada a lead they would not relinquish.


9. Doneil & friends refuse to budge at home

“I’ve been a part of a generation where (visiting teams) come to Canada, you enjoy a night out in Toronto, you take your three points and you go home. We’re making this place a dreadful place to play; you come to Canada, you have to know that. Taking these three points, you can’t even think about anything other than the game, because first of all we want to beat you mentally, psychologically, physically; we want to win in all aspects, we want to make sure that if you come here, you remember… You’re not gonna come here and enjoy your time.”

That’s how Doneil Henry explained this moment, which came just on the verge of halftime when Canada hosted Panama in October. The sparkplug defender, not in the starting XI that day, still managed to make his mark on the game when he refused to get out of the way of Edgar Bárcenas trying to take a corner kick. The ensuing scuffle saw both benches empty into the northwest corner of BMO Field, with Canadian stars Alphonso Davies and Tajon Buchanan the first to rush to Henry’s defence.

This was, according to Henry in that Beyond the Pitch interview, the moment Canada won this game. Though the score was 1-1, it was then that Canada proved they wouldn’t be pushed around at home — further evidence that this team isn’t like past versions of itself.


8. Borjan saves the day in Edmonton

The jubilation after beating Mexico at Commonwealth Stadium was so nearly robbed of Canada at the last gasp. As the final whistle approached, Hector Herrera finally solved the Canadian defence to cut the deficit to just 2-1 and give El Tri some life. Already prepared to begin celebrating, the crowd suddenly held its breath again.

In the third minute of stoppage time, the Mexicans won a corner after a renewed surge of attack. Almost in slow motion, the ball game in, deflected across goal off an attacking head, and fell to the chest of Jorge Sánchez at the back post. As it bounced toward what looked like an open net, the six-foot-five Milan Borjan thew himself upon the goal line and kept it out, as Kamal Miller thumped the ball to temporary safety.

That was the closest Mexico came to equalizing, as moments later the final whistle blew and Edmonton erupted. Looking back, it was a tremendous victory for Canada — their first win over Mexico in over 20 years — but it was not a sure thing by the end. Just as he has at many other points in this campaign (massive saves in Hamilton, San Pedro Sula, and San Salvador come to mind), the 34-year-old goalkeeper saved Canada in this moment.


7. Redemption begins in Port-au-Prince

Before we could even consider the dizzying heights of what Canada has accomplished in the Octagon, they had to get there. Unlike the five Concacaf teams who qualified directly to that stage, Canada’s road to the final round ran through a gauntlet of lower-ranked foes, followed by a two-legged, do-or-die matchup with Haiti, all of which gave absolutely zero margin for error.

Canada got through the first group stage unscathed — four wins from four games, with a +26 goal differential — but the prospect of a knockout tie with Haiti came with its own baggage. Not yet faded from memory was the 2019 Gold Cup quarter-final, which saw Canada go up 2-0 against the Haitians before collapsing in the second half to lose 3-2. So, it was not an overconfident Canadian team that entered the Stade Sylvio Cator in Port-au-Prince on June 12.

The Canadians took to the rough pitch and absolutely screamed the national anthem — led by resident maestro Mark-Anthony Kaye — and went on to record a gutsy 1-0 first-leg win thanks to a Cyle Larin goal, which they’d follow up with a 3-0 second (not quite “home”) leg win in Chicago.

So far, the Canadian players and coaches have kept to themselves all the challenges they faced off the pitch surrounding that game — they’ve hinted there were many — but John Herdman has often mentioned it as a key moment for this group. He’s said a few times that the team gained some new perspective on life in their time in the Haitian capital; one day we’ll surely hear more about that trip, but until then we can say with certainty it was a critical bonding moment for them.

Cyle Larin celebrates scoring in Haiti. (Photo: Canada Soccer)
Cyle Larin celebrates scoring in Haiti. (Photo: Canada Soccer)


6. Fraser and David link up in San Pedro Sula

Until last month, fewer phrases have elicited more shivers among Canadian soccer fans than “San Pedro Sula.” Canada’s men’s team had never won in the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano against Honduras, and some of their past visits were unpleasant enough to echo through the proceeding years.

Canada had once before seen their World Cup hopes dashed on that soil — in unimaginably crushing fashion — when they lost 8-1 to the Hondurans in 2012, needing just a draw to go to the final round of qualification. This time was different, though. Entering the window first place in the group, Canada brought a much different swagger into San Pedro Sula in January.

Just 10 minutes in, the Canadians took the lead — an own goal that affirmed the changing luck of this Canada team — and they held on in what was, admittedly, not the prettiest of games as the Hondurans kept clawing for a goal.

At last, in the 73rd minute, another heroic moment put Canada over the edge. Liam Fraser, only on the pitch because of an earlier injury to Sam Piette, sent an outrageous ball upfield to Jonathan David, who brought it down as only a world class player could before chipping the keeper to make it 2-0. Surely one of the finest goals the Canadian men’s team has ever scored, that was the instant Les Rouges dispelled their ghosts in San Pedro Sula.


5. Osorio silences the Azteca

Heading into this game, Canada hadn’t scored a single goal against Mexico at the Estadio Azteca since 1980. Their historical record against El Tri was, frankly, abysmal, and a loss in this fourth game of the Octagonal would not have been unexpected.

However, the Canadian team themselves were confident. They’d taken Mexico right down to the wire in the Gold Cup semi-final just a few months before, and they’d won a point on the road in the U.S. the month before. John Herdman felt there was nothing off the table.

The wind came out of Canada’s sails just a little when, in the 20th minute, Jorge Sánchez opened the scoring for the visitors. Undeterred, though, the Canadians made their tactical adjustments and continued to do something the Mexicans hadn’t been expected: They played on the front foot, and tried to pressure the hosts in their own stadium.

A couple minutes before halftime, the breakthrough came. A glorious through ball from Alphonso Davies found Jonathan Osorio, who finished coolly — as he’s done before at the Azteca for Toronto FC — and Mexico’s football cathedral fell into stunned silence.

Ultimately, the 1-1 draw held, and Canada banked a result that shocked local media in Mexico, although Herdman et al. were perhaps a little disappointed not to have claimed all three points.


4. Adekugbe ends it in Hamilton

Sometimes, though less often than in other sports, the circumstances align in football to create a euphoric moment of certainty. It’s always special when a goal scored at the very end of a match puts the result beyond doubt and allows the crowd to explode.

That’s what happened at Tim Hortons Field when Sam Adekugbe scored against the United States. Although Canada had led from almost the opening whistle thanks to Cyle Larin’s 7th-minute goal, their win was far from assured for the almost 90 full minutes that followed it.

With the visiting Americans throwing all they could forward at the end of the game, though, Kamal Miller’s long clearance found Adekugbe, a fullback, who danced through a defender before unleashing a curling strike nobody had been expecting. The ball hit the back of the net, and so began the jubilant celebration in Hamilton. After an hour and a half of held breath, the stadium as one exhaled: it was over, and Canada’s trip to Qatar was all but booked.


3. Larin makes it two at the Iceteca (and Sam hits the snowbank)

This moment may in fact go down as the most iconic of the qualification run, not for the goal itself, but for its aftermath. The pure elation around Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium as Cyle Larin got his foot to Stephen Eustáquio’s free kick to make it 2-0 for Canada over Mexico prompted perhaps the most uniquely Canadian celebrations we’ll ever see in Concacaf.

As Larin sprinted to the corner after scoring, clutching the Canada badge on his chest, the OneSoccer broadcast switched camera angles and, out of nowhere, Sam Adekugbe came flying across the screen to land in a massive pitchside snowbank. The scenes of delirium as Canada’s players mobbed each other at the snow-covered edge of the pitch seemed to draw attention from all over the world that night.

The win at the Iceteca was incredibly special, not just for the historic victory over Mexico but also for the significance of almost 50,000 people gathering in Edmonton in temperatures well below freezing to watch a men’s national team game. Winning that game put Canada on top of the Octagonal to end 2021, giving them pole position to qualify for Qatar in 2022.


2. Phonzie’s wondergoal vs. Panama

This one hardly needs explanation, but anyway.

Alphonso Davies’ goal against Panama on October 13 was arguably the greatest ever scored by a Canadian. The score was 1-1 in a game Canada were calling must-win, and to that point, they’d been frustrated. After conceding early in the game, they’d managed to equalize, but still they couldn’t seem to turn all their possession and chances into goals. Canada needed a hero, and they needed one fast.

What more fitting man to answer the call, then, than perhaps the fastest world class player there is? Alphonso Davies put his status as the single best player in Concacaf beyond any doubt in about 15 seconds, from the instant he began his sprint for the ball to the second it hit the back of the net to give Canada the lead.

True superstars produce superstar moments, and this goal was the greatest superstar moment ever delivered by a Canadian men’s player. It went fully viral — even Davies’ Bayern Munich teammates fawned over it on social media, and it led to that famous meeting between him and Drake — and it served as a crucial turning point for Canada in this World Cup Qualifying journey.

When Canada needed him most, Alphonso Davies stepped up.


1. Ticket punched at BMO Field

Could it really be anything else at the top? Although the nine preceding moments all combined to create the euphoric one on Sunday — and to give Canada so much margin for error in this final window — the most memorable part of the journey will, surely, be this finish line.

The victory over Jamaica at BMO Field, in front of yet another thunderous crowd ready to explode from kickoff, was the perfect cap to this remarkable adventure for Canadians. From the exuberant national anthem, to Cyle Larin’s opening goal, to the standing ovation Atiba Hutchinson received upon entering the match, the game felt like the right way to send this team to Qatar.