“Suddenly I’m overwhelmed with optimism, my shoulders no longer feel the weight”
Something is happening in Canada right now. For the first time since I’ve been in the country, which admittedly is not very long, there seems to be a growing optimism when it comes to Canadian Soccer. The professional clubs, especially TFC, are healthy. There is a Canadian Premier League about to open it gates next year. The women’s national team remains one of the best in the world and provincial leagues like League1 Ontario are building year on year. The one outlier has always been the Canadian Men’s National Team. But that seems to be changing under the leadership of new coach Octavio Zambrano who seems to have changed the mentality of this team.
Last night they faced Costa Rica in their second group game of the tournament, and many, myself included, didn’t expect Canada to get much from the game. I said in my preview yesterday that Costa Rica aren’t world beaters and “if Canada play smart and well enough defensively, keeping it tight, Canada have enough pace and ‘flair’ going forward to cause a few problems of their own and hopefully nick a goal.” And that’s pretty much what happened.
Canada lined up in a 4-3-3 like they did against French Guiana but made a few changes starting XI. Milan Borjan had overcome his black eye and was able to play, but Marcel De Jong, who appeared to injury his foot late in the first game, was replaced by his kind-of Whitecaps teammate Sam Adekugbe. Mark-Anthony Kaye replaced Bernier in midfield for his second appearance in a Canada shirt, presumably to ensure the latter’s fitness for the Honduras game. Finally, Anthony Jackson-Hamel started up top over Lucas Cavallini. The big news on the Costa Rican side was that Joel Campbell started replacing Minnesota’s Venegas. Unfortunately for Campbell however he needed to be replaced after 24 mins by David Ramirez.
Canada started off pretty shaky with Costa Rica putting pressure on the back line from the go, moving the ball about quickly. Most of Costa Rica’s initial attacks came down Canada’s left with two dangerous crosses coming in, one looping volley forced a good stop from Borjan, and a low cross that couldn’t be converted by the Costa Rican forward. The latter coming when Adekugbe was dragged out of position allowing the right wing back Cristian Gamboa to overlap. Another chance came later on from a corner when Francisco Calvo was left unmarked but he couldn’t get his header on target.
As a side note, was it just me who kept thinking the hanging camera was a player? Just me? Ok.
Canada did eventually settle down and put a few passes together and weren’t just sitting back, looking to attack quickly getting it wide to Davies and Hoilett to take on the wing backs. Their pace was a threat to the Costa Rican team all game with the ability to beat their man and get into dangerous crossing positions. Kenner Gutierrez was booked for cynically pulling back Davies on one occasion as to prevent one of these attacks.
Unfortunately a lot of the final balls didn’t work out and Canada had to make do with long shots from Kaye and set pieces. However, they got their reward for their adventurous style in the 26th minute after a good run and pass from Michael Petrasso to Scott Arfield at the edge of the area on the right who played a great ball across in between defenders and goalkeeper. Davies ghosted past his marker with precise timing and who seemingly didn’t expect him to be able to meet the cross until it was too late and placed a strong left footed shot past the helpless Patrick Pemberton in goal. Canada still didn’t just sit back coming close with a header for Vitória soon after and were the better team for a period. But Costa Rica finally got back into the game and started creating chances. David Ramirez and a good shot saved at the near post by Borjan, then from the resulting corner taken by Ramirez, Calvo was left unmarked again, but this time rose higher than Vitoria and powered a header in at the far post. Costa Rica had a couple more chances before the end of the half but Canada managed to hold on.
Costa Rica started hot again in the second half, really put the pressure on, with Canada defending deep looking to counter quickly with the speedy wingers. Hoilett, who moved up front when Ricketts came on for Jackson-Hamel, I thought did a great job all game of keeping the ball and running at defenders causing problems, keeping defenders guessing. The issue though for Canada was they were, rightfully, not pushing too many men forward so when Hoilett or Ricketts got the ball into wide areas, there weren’t many options for them to hit and most 2nd half attacks faded out having not been able to connect to a cross or the final ball just wasn’t there and easily intercepted. Hoilett did have a moment of madness though in the 63rd minute where he dived in 2-footed to make a tackle, fortunately he didn’t connect with the player and somehow escaped with just a warning when really could/should have seen red.
Worryingly Davies was brought off in the 68th minute for Aird following a direct impact to his previously-injured hand, I’m hoping this was just a precaution and he will be OK for Friday’s game against Honduras.
The last 15 or so minutes were extremely nerve-wracking for the Canadians, who weren’t able to keep hold of the ball for long and it would just come straight back at them. Borjan, who did manage to drop one cross, was excellent as he was the whole match making save after save. Players were diving in front of shots putting it all on the line to prevent Costa Rica from getting a winner.
In years gone by you would expect Canada to give up that late winning goal. But things seem to be changing. Conceded 2 against GUF, could have capitulated…they didn’t. Under heavy pressure from Costa Rica, could have conceded late…they didn’t. The game finished 1-1 and felt almost like a victory. Canada seem to be playing with more confidence now, it’s not perfect, nor will it probably ever be, but you can see signs that this team is moving forward and being competitive against countries they should be competitive against.
They have a star in the making in Davies. He still has a long way to go as despite his 3 goals, his final pass needs improvement and he didn’t contribute much else other than the goals (I understand that these goals were a major contribution). They have a solid base of players, both Adekugbe and Kaye came in and did a good job over players like Raheem Edwards, who has been outstanding in MLS, and Russell Teibert, who came on in the first game.
With 4 points gained from 2 matches, qualification is pretty much guaranteed, and it is in Canadian hands to unthinkably finish top of Group A. The caveat to this being that if French Guiana field Florent Malouda like they did last night against Honduras, Costa Rica would get an automatic 3 nil win, meaning that Canada would need to win by 2 or more goals to finish top on goal difference. Beating Honduras by 2 goals may have seemed like a crazy idea just a year ago, but with this current team defying expectations I think they deserve more optimism going into Friday.