Canada's program-defining win over Mexico was decades in the making

Canada's men hunting a World Cup berth after beating Mexico seemed like an absurd proposition even 20 months ago. Twenty years ago, it felt impossible. (CP Images)
Canada's men hunting a World Cup berth after beating Mexico seemed like an absurd proposition even 20 months ago. Twenty years ago, it felt impossible. (CP Images)

This is exactly what was envisioned when John Herdman took over as the Canadian men’s national team head coach in January 2018.

Well, maybe not to the most scrupulous detail. Few would have foreseen Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium transforming into the Iceteca for one evening, where Cyle Larin’s brace led Canada to a 2-1 victory over Mexico, propelling the country atop the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying final round group with six games remaining. Tuesday’s victory was the most important win for Canada’s men's team in at least 22 years and — depending on how much stock you put into the 2000 Gold Cup victory — perhaps the greatest win in program history.

How did the men’s side even get here? Knocking off Mexico decisively seemed like an unfathomable proposition 18 months ago, and feels only somewhat less surreal writing it out now. At the risk of being reductionist, a few vital developments took place: Canada Soccer took reform seriously, revamped its elite development pyramid and implemented a real, viable professional league, with the Canadian Premier League playing its first season in 2019. The second development can be chalked up to Herdman recognizing that an influx of young, immensely skilled players were ascending through various academies — both domestically and internationally — and were unburdened by the failures of Canadian teams past.

Herdman, by most accounts, is beloved by his players and his steadfast commitment to allowing his players play to the height of their technical abilities has paid dividends. Davies is the headliner of this team and for good reason, he’s the fastest man in world football, and a bonafide superstar with Bayern Munich, but this is far from a one-man team. Larin was the hero on Tuesday, and yet his appearance in the starting lineup could be seen as mildly surprising, considering Canada’s other co-headliner, Jonathan David, scored the lone goal in the team’s previous 1-0 win vs. Costa Rica. In many ways, it’s a testament to the team’s depth and Herdman’s confidence in this young, supremely talented team — particularly at forward — that he can run through a cabal of stellar options and no one will bat an eye.

Tuesday night wasn’t a football exhibition for the ages, played in sub-freezing conditions. The opening half was a cagey affair — Canada’s Doneil Henry leveled Mexico’s Hirving Lozano in the opening minute with a check that wouldn’t look out of place at Rogers Place (and there is your lone, gratuitous hockey reference) while picking up a yellow card in the 12th minute, forcing Herdman to bring in veteran Steven Vitoria just past the half-hour mark. The final minutes of the game were an uneasy affair for Canadians, as goalkeeper Milan Borjan cleared a potential game-tying goal off the line to preserve the narrow victory. But somewhere between the end of the first half and the near-capitulation at the end, Canada found the form that has propelled the team atop the CONCACAF standings.

The two Canadian goals were diametric opposites in form and execution. Canada got on the board after Alistair Johnston beat Mexico’s Orbelin Pineda to an errant long ball, composed himself, and drove a speculative long-range effort towards the net, where opportunity struck. Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa spilled the ball right into Larin’s path and it was 1-0 Canada to the delight of 44,214 fans in attendance.

The second goal had some real artistry to it, as Stephen Eustáquio delivered a perfectly placed free kick right onto Larin who crashed the back post and deftly flicked it home for the eventual game-winner.

Herdman should be commended for cleaning up some of the messes he inherited from previous managers Benito Floro and Octavio Zambrano, but the vestiges of Canada’s past couldn’t necessarily be ignored Tuesday. One of Herdman’s best qualities has been his ability to seamlessly merge veterans and youth alike into his team, and it was only fitting that on Canada’s historic evening, Atiba Hutchinson passed Dwayne De Rosario to become Canada’s all-time men’s caps leader with his 90th international appearance. Hutchinson submitted a stellar, if unspectacular performance and he, perhaps more than anyone, should revel in this triumph, having been the face of the program through some of its dreariest nights.

Herdman’s appointment to the men’s side wasn’t always warmly welcomed. Christine Sinclair, Diana Matheson and Stephanie Labbé all openly balked at the idea of losing Herdman to the inferior men’s program, who had rarely shown any inclination to progress past the infancy stages of World Cup qualifying. With Herdman at the helm, the Canadian’s women’s team won bronze at the 2016 Olympic Games and were always in the mix as one of the world’s best teams, on the verge of a breakthrough to a new, stratospheric tier.

We know what happened next for the women’s team. Sinclair and Labbé didn’t miss a beat and in conjunction with a roster of young superstars in Jessie Fleming, Ashley Lawrence and Jordyn Huitema, among others, became the country’s national sporting pride in capturing gold at the Olympics this past summer. Labbé, in particular, should be a leading candidate for the Lou Marsh Trophy, an award bestowed to Alphonso Davies in 2019 for the nation’s best athlete.

Tuesday night was a banner night for Canadian soccer, the type of result that could serve as a catapult into the mainstream. Although soccer has been increasingly popular in Canada, the support system for the men’s national team has often been a smaller, insular group. This isn’t meant as an intention to gatekeep but as a declaration of recognition to the OGs. It really was The Voyageurs, Kristian Jack, James Sharman, Kara Lang, Brendan Dunlop, along with the handful of dedicated soccer writers and content creators across the country that kept interest in the team alive — particularly after the team reached its nadir during an 8-1 loss to Honduras in 2012.

For those with an interest in soccer, but not particular interest in the men’s national side, discourse around the Canadian team would often be relegated to Remembering Some Guys, both for their moments with the national team or otherwise.

Remember when Gabe Gala scored for Toronto FC against Real Madrid in 2009? That was cool!

Remember when Jonathan de Guzman chose to play for the Netherlands over Canada? I don’t blame him but that’s slightly less cool!

Remember when Iain Hume scored in the same game as Andres Iniesta at the 2003 U-20 World Cup? Hahaha, me neither dude, that’s crazy!

Now, the Canadian men’s national team is fully into the mainstream culture of Canadian sports and that can’t necessarily be understated. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with the team on Monday, while the team gathered public support from various athletes and public figures across the country. Canada hasn’t been to the FIFA World Cup since 1986 — which predates my lifetime — and no disrespect to that team, but few will remember Michel Platini’s France sleepwalking to an easy victory in the group stages.

Davies, Larin, David, Hutchinson and the rest of this team now have the weight of forming new memories for two generations completely devoid of any warm memories associated with the Canadian men’s program.

From an on-field perspective, this was a night to remember for Canadian soccer fans. The image of Samuel Adekugbe launching himself into a snowbank amid Canada’s second goal is indeed an instant Canadian Heritage Moment. This was Canada’s first win over Mexico in 22 years — incidentally, a 2-1 win in the 2000 Gold Cup quarterfinals.

It may have been a glacial evening in Edmonton, but brighter summer days lie ahead for the Canadian men’s national team.

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