Energy, Excitement, and Excellent Play from Men’s National Team?

In case you didn’t hear, yesterday, the Canadian Men’s National Team competed in a “friendly” against Jamaica, who eliminated us from the Gold Cup, in Toronto. The match was arranged prior to the Gold Cup, so it wasn’t originally planned as a chance at redemption, but that’s how it’s been billed since our elimination from the tournament. With the surprisingly energetic and entertaining play we witnessed during the Gold Cup, this friendly would more of  weather vane, letting us know if the Gold Cup was a new-coach high, or if we’ve actually seen a change of system.

Prior to this year’s Gold Cup, the CanMNT has been a snooze to watch. The team would turtle from the 1st minute and rely on a lucky counter in order to move toward the opposite end, where our player would have no one to link up with and then lose the ball to the opposing team while our other players remained in turtle-position. Well, from the few matches I didn’t fall asleep while trying to watch, that was what I say anyways. After all, I’m personally still relatively new to (men’s) soccer, only having started following (men’s sides) it in advance the launch of Ottawa Fury FC’s NASL stint, as Northern Ontario isn’t exactly welcoming of any sport that isn’t hockey. That puts me watching the Benito Floro era of Canada Soccer, which was anything but entertaining.

The Octavio Zambrano era only began March 17th, and the difference has been remarkable. Going into yesterday’s friendly against Jamaica, Zambrano’s Team Canada record was 2 wins, 2 draws (excluding March 22nd in Scotland which was coached by Findlay), 1 loss. With the loss coming against Jamaica in the Gold Cup, that made this friendly important for the national team, as it would demonstrate whether improvement had occurred since the Gold Cup, and whether Zambrano’s new system would stick.

The answer to both questions was a clear and resounding “yes” as Canada would run attacking plays throughout the match, and give us the 2-0 victory over Jamaica that we would have felt lucky to see in the Gold Cup. Just as importantly, 21 724 fans showed up in Toronto on a holiday long weekend to watch the match in person. With 2 full sections packed with supporters that chanted throughout the match, it was a truly entertaining affair. To add to that, TSN showed the game live across the country, which allowed me to enjoy it from Victoria, BC, as I took a break from packing to tune in with my toddler.

The game’s pace was set right from the very beginning, with Canada going right on the attack. It took a while, but Canada scored their first goal at 16′, with Atiba Hutchinson forcing the turnover to David Junior Hoilett. A pass from Hoilett makes its way to Anthony Jackson-Hamel who knocks it right in the goal. An early goal against Jamaica was huge, but just as importantly was what Canada did next: we kept attacking. In the Floro era, the turtle would have hardened its shell after what then would be considered a near-miraculous goal. But now, under Zambrano, 1 goal is not enough.

So what did Canada do? We went right back at it. We passed the ball. We ran with the ball. We marked players and challenged the for the ball, forcing turn overs. And in the 30th minute, we scored again. Jackson-Hamel slipped the ball to Jonathan Osorio who stepped beyond Jamaica’s back line to double the lead.

The rest of the half saw a lot of really good attacking play from both sides. Our keeper, Jayson Leutwiler, was challenged several times as the half wound down, but managed a phenomenal performance. Of course, with the half-time whistle came the knowledge that Canada probably wouldn’t continue with the same line-up, especially with Cyle Larin sitting on the bench. Sam Adekugbe took over for Marcel De Jong, and sadly, Zambrano replaced Jackson-Hamel with Larin at the half. In the 54′, Adekugbe saw an early end to his night as he went off with injury, to be replaced by Mark-Anthony Kaye.

Despite having a very active team throughout, Canada’s quality took a real nose-dive in the 2nd half. This was horribly obvious in the 60′, when Larin, in the clear and great shooting position, acts confused and lost when he receives the ball, and proceeds to stand almost-still as Jamaica catches up with him and takes it back. This really needs to be Larin’s last kick at the National Team, as he simply seems unable to perform in a non-purple jersey. Uncertainty at the front became very apparent as the other players clearly had a lack of trust in Larin’s ability and instead they opted for more difficult and less likely shots over passing to a player that fails to understand that we drive on the same side of the road in Canada and the United States. Oh wait, we don’t talk about that anymore right?

Hutchinson subbed out for Jay Chapman at the 64th, while Raheem Edwards left for Alphonso Davies to come on at the 70th. And then Canada’s day got a little bit worse. Davies is young, and his red card tackle that came in the 76′ was pretty questionable. The kid managed to get the Golden Boot for the Gold Cup, but in this match, it was his boot that sent him off the field, leaving Canada a man short for the remainder. Jamaica fought back hard, and as time wound down, Canada switched out Osorio for Tosaint Ricketts. It was the Leutwiler show at the end though, as the keeper fought to keep a clean sheet.

Overall, it was a pretty good match. Canada won, 2-0, over a team that beat us, 2-1 in July. Like the Gold Cup matches, it was very entertaining play, even if things got a little dicey through the 2nd half. A lot of players performed admirably, but one player that didn’t get mentioned above, or really in the broadcast, was Samuel Piette. He was a marshal of the midfield throughout the whole 90 minutes, and he performed the job beautifully. He may not have been out there making the plays, but he also wasn’t screwing the pooch, as it was a lot of his hard work keeping the lads in line that kept Jamaica from making much headway, especially once Davies was ejected. Canada Soccer may have awarded the Man of the Match to Hoilett, but Piette was just as important with his work in the midfield.

We’ve a decent team right now, and it will be very interesting to see if Zambrano continues to put faith in Garbage Larin, especially as the other players are completely unwilling to do so. Hopefully this match will not be the last we see of Atiba Hutchinson, as I think he’s got a lot more international play in him, and a lot he can teach the young guys as they prepare for the next World Cup qualification cycle.

We’ll have coverage of the post-game interviews and the like courtesy of Rocket Robin Glover. Check back tomorrow afternoon to hear what the team had to say.

The CanMNT face off on October 8th against El Salvador.

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Shawn Gray

Shawn Gray

Shawn Gray is an experienced author who has previously published articles on transit, cycling & politics. With a Bachelor of Arts (English) degree, a Bachelor of Education degree, an Event Management graduate certificate, and two years of Business Administration, his education has helped him connect with a variety of people, through numerous industries. In 2014, he was a Team Lead in the Club Section of TD Place, where the Ottawa Fury host matches. Now located in Victoria, British Columbia, Gray enjoys the local PDL matches, and tries to watch his favourite clubs online with his infant son whenever possible.

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