There will be a natural inclination to find a precedent for this version of the Canadian men’s national soccer team but in truth, looking to the past for context would be a disservice. After the celebration was put on hold for a few more days, Canada punched its ticket to the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1986, the realization of its short-term goal, all the while entering this winter’s tournament with no ceilings on its potential.
If you believe sports contain the power of poetic symmetry, then Canada’s was truly for the dreamers. Junior Hoilett — who strongly considered playing for Jamaica before committing to Canada in 2015 — submitted a masterful performance, setting up Canada’s first goal, scoring the third goal, and working relentlessly in tandem with Stephen Eustaquio to ensure that Cyle Larin and Tajon Buchanan would have seemingly limitless chances in the box. In the not-so-distant past, a player of Hoilett’s caliber would’ve been resigned to one of the sport’s established powers, but it’s a new day for Canadian football, the past only a reminder of a woebegone climate that the 2022 team has elevated beyond.
Canada played the part of a genuine contender — not just for CONCACAF bragging rights, but a serious indicator that it could do real damage in Qatar this winter. Against a far inferior Jamaican side, Canada seized the game from the opening whistle and it wasn’t long before a Hoilett-Eustaquio link-up led to Larin slicing behind the Jamaican defence for the opening goal in the 13th minute.
Larin and Buchanan were unguardable, to the degree that their self-inflicted mistakes in front of goal were the only criticisms you could levy against this Canadian side. And because we’re treating Canada like an elite team capable of holding its own against the world’s best, we’re allowed to nit-pick the few errors in what was otherwise a flawless performance.
Alphonso Davies — Canada’s best player — missed the past five games due to complications from myocarditis, providing an extra degree of difficulty for the Canadians entering the calendar year of 2022. Davies is nearing his return to Bayern Munich and his world-class pace, crossing ability and penchant to destroy his opponents in 1v1 scenarios make this Canadian team even more potent. Canada has an attacking mindset with its full backs pushing up the field, and Davies, who usually plays at left back, can still operate as a striker for his country, providing opposing defenders with a genuine headache. You would think Canada would’ve had to been at full health to ascend to the top of CONCACAF but in truth, its astonishing depth has arguably been the story of the qualifying run.
Following Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Costa Rica, there was a minority faction of the fanbase that was sorely disappointed that the champagne had to be put on ice — along with an even smaller caucus who dealt with their disappointment in the most disgusting fashion possible. Perhaps there were lessons to be gleaned. Just eight years ago, Costa Rica was the newfound CONCACAF darling, shocking the world with a Cinderella run to the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals. Three starters from the 2014 team took the field on Thursday, including all-world goalkeeper Keylor Navas and veteran midfielder Celso Borges, who scored the game’s lone goal during his 150th international cap.
And if the dying embers of Costa Rica’s golden generation served as a mirror for Canada, perhaps it should be learned that this team could shock the world in Qatar if taken lightly. This year’s team serves as a bridge between a bleak past and an impossibly bright future — it must’ve been cathartic for Atiba Hutchinson to get a standing ovation during his 94th international cap. Buchanan, Davies and Jonathan David are all products of the reformed Canadian developmental model, one that has taken a professional approach to developing players, instead of adopting high-performance models from hockey and basketball that have rarely translated well in soccer.
It wasn’t long ago that aspiring Canadian men’s players knew their development would stall by the time they got their driver’s license. Canadian youth teams would regularly be able to hold their own against their contemporaries abroad until ages 14-17 where European players would benefit from the specialization of the academy system, whereas Canadian teens would almost solely have to rely on their raw physical tools in a vain attempt to keep up. It’s not a stretch to look at Canada’s qualification as a confirmation that the genuine commitment to developing players through the academy model has finally paid dividends.
but don’t confuse the celebration for complacency. We’re witnessing a team with limitless potential, a system that has finally been designed to fully actualize it, and if the world wants to keep sleeping on Canada because of the disappointments of the past, so be it.
Or perhaps we’d be wise to take a cue from Canada head coach John Herdman: We f—ing did it!
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