Canada passes crucial test of winning when expected in quest for World Cup

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Team Canada's Tajon Buchannan (11) goes airborne to kick the ball against Costa Rica on Friday in Edmonton. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press - image credit)
Team Canada's Tajon Buchannan (11) goes airborne to kick the ball against Costa Rica on Friday in Edmonton. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press - image credit)

EDMONTON — John Herdman saw and took the opportunity for another teaching moment. Canada was in the early stages of a difficult, protracted fight against Costa Rica, in front of more than 48,000 fans, the third-largest home crowd in the history of the men's national soccer team. There was a nervy crackle in the cold evening air. Even the stadium announcer was feeling the pressure. Before the game, he'd accidentally introduced local hero Alphonso Davies twice.

Canada had been awarded a free kick — not an especially dangerous one, but in such a tight game, every sliver of time and space was a possible opportunity against a team that wasn't offering many. The Canadians set themselves up.

All that was missing was the ball.

Herdman looked to his left and caught sight of a ball boy, cradling the object of Herdman's immediate affection. He beckoned the kid to deliver the ball. After play had continued, Herdman then returned to him — telling him to pay attention, to keep his head in the game. Ball boys and girls are part of a good team's home-field advantage. They deliver the ball quickly when urgency is required; they take their time when the objective is killing the clock. Herdman, with a gambler's eye for the smallest edges, wanted everyone brought up to speed.

Friday's game — ultimately a 1-0 victory for still-undefeated Canada in their quest to qualify for next year's World Cup in Qatar — was an education for all involved. From the opening whistle, the Canadians found themselves in a new position: under the weight of national expectation.

WATCH | Canada defeats Costa Rica, stays undefeated in World Cup qualifying:

"It was like something we've never experienced," Herdman said of the atmosphere inside the cauldron of Commonwealth Stadium.

For the first time in a long time, Canada wasn't playing a game that would be nice to win, or that it had a chance to win. Canada was playing a game that it was expected to win, and the cracks in the stadium announcer's shaky voice sometimes paled next to the fissures on the field.

The team had started positively enough. For the first 20 minutes or so, Canada held possession, made some good probing runs, and earned corner after corner. But as the minutes ticked away without joy, and the Costa Ricans settled into a relaxed, impenetrable low block, the Canadians began to show their frustration, and then their anxiety.

Even Davies, this team's greatest talent, betrayed signs of a mounting stress. Playing in front of his hometown fans for the first time in his international career, he became determined to win the game by himself, sometimes beating one or two Costa Ricans but then losing the ball to a third, or uncharacteristically firing shots high and wide.

Herdman deflected some gentle post-game criticism of Davies. Of course, a 21-year-old in a first-time position is going to feel the burden a little bit. Of course. This is how development works. Games like these are how players and teams grow.

Jason Franson/Canadian Press
Jason Franson/Canadian Press

'Play the game, not the occasion'

Even the relatively experienced Herdman had sought counsel before the match, having had a long conversation with legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson on Thursday. Jackson knows pressure — understands the way it searches for its own opportunities inside your brain and your heart, like water finding its level. And he offered wisdom that Herdman had then passed along to his players. Most important: "You play the game, not the occasion."

Herdman then wagered that a different Davies will show up here on Tuesday against Mexico — that the entire team will be more patient, more settled. Canada's win coupled with a Mexican loss to the Americans on Friday means that one point separates third from first at the top of CONCACAF's tight qualifying table.

The margins are just that fine. In the end, the Canadians were saved on Friday by a rare demonstration of Costa Rican nerves. In the 57th minute, goalkeeper Leonel Moreira spilled a relatively soft ball onto the dangerous feet of Jonathan David, who found an elusive calm in his finish. When his short shot hit the back of the net, the release in the stadium was palpable. The entire Canadian team — including the bench in their long parkas — surrounded David in a corner of the field, screaming into the night.

Just a few feet away, Herdman's ball boy — who had been very quick in his work the rest of the game — watched his heroes celebrate. He wasn't the only one who had learned a lesson.

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