Amid mounting World Cup expectations, Canada stands tall in win over Honduras

Canada's Jonathan David celebrates scoring his side's second goal against Honduras during a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Delmer Martinez)
Canada's Jonathan David celebrates scoring his side's second goal against Honduras during a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Delmer Martinez)

This isn't the Canadian men's national soccer team of yesteryear, and the ghosts of failures past don't travel with it.

That's what Canada displayed on Thursday night, as it did exactly what was expected and dispatched Honduras 2-0 in their World Cup qualifying match in San Pedro Sula, even if the process was uneasy at times.

Quite often, we attach external meaning to sports through the prism of expectation. If expectations escalate through the course of a season — or in this case, a qualifying tournament — and a team fails to perform in sync, disappointment and dejection form through the cause-and-effect relationship.

Canada entered with the burden of heightened projections, and a now-angsty fan base expecting greatness as a rite. After 90 minutes, Canada walked away with a key road victory, a window into the gulf in talent between both sides, and one step closer to clinching its first World Cup berth since 1986.

There were internal hurdles to be cleared before Thursday’s contest. Alphonso Davies, who has moonlighted at forward for Canada, was diagnosed with myocarditis as a post-COVID complication. Stephen Eustáquio, who joined FC Porto this month, wasn’t cleared to play after reportedly testing positive for COVID over the weekend. Losing two key contributors ahead of a pivotal road contest would’ve sunk the lesser Canadian teams of the past, but John Herdman instructed his squad to deal with challenges as they come, and correctly bet that his team, boasting superior talent at every position, wouldn’t have to drastically change its game plan against a Honduras squad toiling at the bottom of the table.

Herdman started Cyle Larin and Tajon Buchanan up front, with close support from Junior Hoilett and Jonathan David, and it largely paid off, especially during the first half. After a shaky few minutes where Canada’s Samuel Piette and Alistair Johnston worked in tandem to clear a few inviting Honduras chances, Buchanan made his impact felt.

With a series of tantalizing stepovers, Buchanan put Honduras’s Diego Rodriguez on skates and whipped in a dangerous ball that surely would’ve been deposited by one of the incoming Canadian attackers. Honduras defender Denil Maldonado couldn’t do anything about it, and steered Buchanan’s attempt into his own net for the game’s opening goal.

There was on-field adversity to deal with too. Piette, who solidified Canada’s defensive efforts when the result was still in the balance, was injured on a clumsy tackle in the 39th minute that went unpunished, and was replaced by Liam Fraser. Plus, David, who will be remembered fondly for his performance on Thursday, squandered two glorious chances at the start of the second half.

And with a narrow 1-0 lead that belied Canada’s mechanical control of the game, Milan Borjan made a jaw-dropping save in the 70th minute, steering what would’ve been the game-tying goal away from the back post with an outstretched lunge. Borjan’s efforts may be forgotten other than registering the clean sheet, but without him, this could have been a completely different result.

Galvanized by Borjan’s brilliant save, David responded immediately. Fraser, who might’ve spent the contest on the bench were it not for Piette’s early injury, delivered the type of long-range pass that even Kevin de Bruyne would be proud of, which synced perfectly with David’s opportunistic run. Honduras goalkeeper Luis López wandered well out of the box in order to cut down David’s angle, but it was for naught, as the 22-year-old lobbed López with a world-class finish, indicative of the quality that the Canadian team possesses now, and marching forward.

This was Canada’s first win in Honduras since August 25, 1985, a date that holds no symbolic meaning anymore. Perhaps this is no longer another house of horrors for the Canadians, who infamously lost 8-1 to Honduras in 2012, the possible nadir for the men’s national program. The ghosts of yesteryear don’t follow great teams, or serve as excuses when escalating expectations aren’t met.

Since we last left off, Buchanan made his debut at Club Brugge, Eustáquio joined FC Porto — a team that is perhaps in its best form since winning the Champions League in 2004, while substitute Richie Laryea joined Nottingham Forest earlier this month. In the past, these transactions would be cause for celebration, an indication that the future of the national team would be bright and uncompromising.

No one blinked an eye this time around. These are common occurrences for great teams and on Thursday night, when Canada was missing some of its best players, in a previously hostile environment, it barely even flinched.

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