For a few, sparse moments, Wednesday’s matchup between the Canadian men’s national soccer team and El Salvador held the potential to exemplify all of the volatility the CONCACAF region is known for, and that was before the opening whistle.
In actuality, the game turned out to be a rather dull affair for the most part as the white-hot Canadian side often struggled to display the offensive invention, pace and designed runs through the wings during a 2-0 win, which it had used to perfection in program-defining wins against Honduras and the United States earlier this week.
And yet, boredom isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the Canadians with the champagne on ice, at least for a few more weeks. The notion that one can complain about winning without style is a luxury often reserved for the world’s best teams. But if CONCACAF is indeed the theatre of the absurd, then you needn’t look further than Atiba Hutchinson’s game-winner, which he somehow scored off his back in the 66th minute.
It would be a pretty easy narrative crutch to suggest that Hutchinson, the long-time defensive stalwart of the national team, is the beneficiary of some overdue, pristine luck. That would be incorrect and understate the true potential of a Canadian side without real historical precedent.
Perhaps we’ll let the video do the talking here.
Jonathan David added another picturesque goal, calmly chipping it over El Salvador goalkeeper Kevin Carabantes in the 93rd minute for the insurance marker — an indication of his overall quality. It wasn’t a banner night for the Canadian forwards and yet history won’t remember it that way.
Canada needed a highly improbable four-game parlay on Wednesday to punch its ticket to Qatar and after Costa Rica defeated Jamaica earlier in the evening, the instant gratification of securing a first FIFA World Cup bid since 1986 was out of reach.
It briefly appeared that the game wouldn’t be played at all. During the afternoon, El Salvador’s players released a unified statement, saying it wouldn’t play against Canada due to a conflict with federation officials and bonuses being withheld. Less than an hour later, El Salvador reversed course and stated that it would play Wednesday under protest.
“As a united group, we have decided to play and give everything to keep this illusion of a country alive," the El Salvadorian players said in a statement, as translated by The Athletic. "We will play for ourselves, our families and for our fans despite having these unfortunate actions, which affect the concentration and focus that a game of this level requires."
Perhaps the brief confusion about whether the game would be played at all lulled Canada into a relative snooze against an opponent it had defeated soundly in its previous matchup in September. There wasn’t a whole lot to be excited about. Jonathan David was mauled in the 20th minute and aside from a free kick, no further discipline was doled out. Cyle Larin missed a glaring chance in the 73rd minute, one that he would’ve ordinarily deposited. Tajon Buchanan, who submitted a complete game against the United States and a dribbling clinic against Honduras, lacked his typical flair replete with stepovers. Milan Borjan had to flick a speculative long-range effort over the bar in the 92nd minute, but the ensuing corner flamed out and David took off on the counterattack to seal the victory.
Boredom is a luxury for the elite, both in society and sports. Aside from the die-hard fans of the program, few are going to remember this victory, and it doesn’t exemplify the best of what the team has had to offer during its otherwise flawless three-game stretch run. The fact that Canada secured a maximum nine points throughout this recent stretch while missing its best player, Alphonso Davies, for all of the games, plus Stephen Eustáquio only being made available Wednesday, is a sound predictor of better days ahead. Canada rarely exited second gear and remained unbeaten in the third round of World Cup qualifying.
It’s not always pretty, but there are worse fates than ennui, especially in CONCACAF.
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