This was the main event of the Canadian men’s national team qualifying run to the World Cup, and it couldn’t have been scripted any better.
Cyle Larin got the Canadians off to a dream start, depositing the game-winner in the sixth minute after a beautiful linkup with Jonathan David. And though we shouldn’t overstate the importance of sports relative to the world at-large, Canada’s 2-0 victory over the United States provided brief respite from what was a controversial and traumatic weekend for the country on a larger scale.
But first, we’ll get into the on-field implications of Canada’s victory over the United States — a delightful result that rewarded the 12,000-plus diehard fans at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field for their years of patience.
Canada hasn’t clinched its bid just yet, so it would perhaps be premature to call this the culmination of all the hard work the players of the John Herdman Era have put in to get to this point. And though there were uncomfortable moments — Milan Borjan once again had to make a spectacular save in the 42nd minute, robbing United States midfielder Weston McKennie of the game-tying goal — this was a quality win over their toughest opponent in the group stage, another indicator that this Canadian team has larger goals beyond mere qualification.
When Sam Adekugbe added the insurance goal in the 95th minute to secure the 2-0 victory, Tim Hortons Field exploded, not out of a sense of relief, but a roaring declaration that Canada is indeed the best team in the CONCACAF region. Patronization from the American media aside, this team is no one’s little brother.
— Canada Soccer (@CanadaSoccerEN) January 30, 2022
If your best players are supposed to step up when the games matter the most, then Canada won this battle handily. With Alphonso Davies forced to watch this contest on Twitch after being ruled out due to myocarditis, David, Larin, Borjan, Tajon Buchanan and Alistair Johnston took on increased responsibilities. And once again, they delivered. David and Larin — who broke the Canadian men’s record for all-time goals with his opening strike — were absolute menaces for the United States backline, while Buchanan tracked back beautifully and limited the effectiveness of Antonee Robinson and Sergiño Dest, the two American backs who played so well against El Salvador on Thursday.
Larin, for what it’s worth, received a standing ovation from the Hamilton crowd after being substituted for Junior Hoilett in the 73rd minute. It was a well-deserved acknowledgement from the fans and it could’ve been even more raucous as Larin squandered a gaping chance for a brace in the second half.
Johnston is having an excellent campaign as of late and he was tasked with shutting down Christian Pulisic, who has fallen out of form at Chelsea. Pulisic was dreadful on Sunday in large part due to Johnston’s shadowing. He was granted one golden opportunity in the 36th minute to tie the game, but he skied a free-kick well over the bar, as Borjan barely had to move.
— Canada Soccer (@CanadaSoccerEN) January 30, 2022
Perhaps there’s something to be said about being galvanized by the chance to play for your country, but it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to suggest that Johnston has been world-class for Canada the past two games and beyond.
“Staying undefeated has been a massive, massive thing for this team,” Herdman told MLSSoccer.com prior to the contest. And that sense of urgency was on full display, as Canada defended valiantly until the final whistle, while rarely deviating from its now-patented counterattacking style.
International competition often invites a reflection into the intersection of sports and nationalism. In a much broader sense, it has been an embarrassing, dangerous week for Canadians on a broader scale. A trucker convoy with the intention of protesting vaccine mandates was co-opted by radical right-wing groups, driving into Ottawa with hostile intentions. All levels of government, from both leading national parties, either sat idly by or disappeared entirely when the country needed strong leadership to curtail this dangerous faction.
The message of “freedom” was all but lost, but until the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the National War Memorial were vandalized and desecrated, large political and journalistic factions didn’t even both to address this real threat. This was simply an embarrassing weekend to be a Canadian, any way you look at it.
And this isn’t to suggest that a 90-minute contest where Canada bested its rival United States in convincing fashion is meant to suggest that the social ills this country faces are rendered non-existent. But sport does have healing power — and for 90 minutes, if you’re someone who cares about what this country represents, the Canadian men’s national team was as good an ambassador as anyone, a brief respite from a dark moment in our nation’s history.
Canada can punch its ticket to the World Cup with a victory against El Salvador on the road Wednesday, its first invitation to the big dance since 1986. And while there’s often very little to look forward to during our third calendar year in a global pandemic, the cohesive nature of this team that refuses to be intimidated by anyone reflects the best of what Canada has to offer.
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