Copa America. Euro. Africa Cup of Nations. When asked “What are the regional championships in South America, Europe and Africa, most Canadian soccer fans will easily rattle off the names. Ask them to name our region’s championship, however, and you’re likely to get a blank stare or even worse: “We have one?”.
This summer, as it does every two summers, the Canadian Men’s National Team will participate in the Gold Cup, CONCACAF’s regional championship. Canada is one of only three nations, along with Mexico (9) and the USA (5), to have won it. When Canada prevailed in 2000, it locked up the right to represent CONCACAF at the 2001 Confederations Cup, and would do so again in 2017 if it were to be victorious this summer (and then beat the USA in a playoff). However, let’s not put the cart before the horse.
The primary objective for Canada (ranked 78th in the ELO Ratings) at this Gold Cup has to be to make it out of their group, consisting of Jamaica (80), El Salvador (88) and Costa Rica (16). Canada dominated Jamaica last September at the National Soccer Stadium, El Salvador is forever beatable and the hope for a draw against Costa Rica remains a long shot. Four to six points in this group would likely be enough to progress to the Quarterfinal stage.
Canada will have to achieve results at this Gold Cup while missing its best players due to injury. Atiba Hutchinson will not be fit by next week, so is concentrating on getting healthy for the beginning of Beşiktaş’ Europa League campaign. Portland Timbers captain Will Johnson has declined a call-up to the team, citing his recovery from a broken leg last fall.
The good news is that the MLS’ growth in size and quality has begun to affect Canada’s men’s program in fruitful ways. Instead of relying on Canadian ex-pats’ willingness to make the trip back to North America five to 10 times a year, we now have a talented pool of high-level players to draw upon right in our backyard. Cyle Larin, Jonathan Osorio, Tesho Akindele, Karl Ouimette, Russell Teibert are but a few of the names that can feature for Canada following a short flight from their respective club cities. In fact, you could put together a competitive Canada side without drawing on our European adventurers at all. Here’s what it could look like:
Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t think this is a world-beating lineup. In 5 years, though…
What’s also refreshing is hearing young Canadian players get excited about playing for Canada. Here is Jonathan Osorio speaking to Sportsnet’s John Molinaro:
“I love representing my country and this is a big time for our country, it’s really huge,” Osorio said. “These results are very important because they might decide the future of football in this country. If we do (well), we turn a lot of heads and maybe younger players start to believe in themselves (more). It’s huge. I’m really looking forward to this challenge coming up.”
This type of quote was hard to come by until very recently, and is an indication of a program that has finally turned a corner under head coach Benito Floro.
Osorio isn’t wrong, either, regarding young players. The country’s attitude towards the Women’s national team cannot have gone unnoticed by the men, and a few positive results would go a long way towards sharing the spotlight with the ladies. Give the men that kind of support and we can put the national nightmare of Hargreaves, de Guzman the younger and Hoilett behind us.
As stated earlier, Canada should expect positive results in their first two matches of the tourney. El Salvador has never bothered Canada in their history of matches. Since 1990, they’ve met 10 times, with Canada taking 6 wins with 2 draws. It’s reasonable for Canada to expect all three points from this match.
Jamaica face Costa Rica in their first match, in which they can expect to lose. Costa Rica has overtaken Mexico in terms of quality, and any rational evaluation of CONCACAF matchups vs. the Ticos needs to be seen through that prism. This means Jamaica will be hungry for points when they meet Canada in Houston. For its part, Canada should have come away with 3 points against El Salvador, but will not be able to afford complacency against Jamaica with a matchup against Costa Rica in Toronto looming three days later. Jamaica are a much stronger opponent than El Salvador, with quality throughout its lineup. Any casual MLS watcher will recognize the names of Giles Barnes, Je-Vaughn Watson, Jermaine Taylor and rookie Alvas Powell. Add to that a strong contingent from England’s 2nd division and you’ll understand just how much of a good result Canada achieved by beating them 3-1 back in September. A repeat of that result should be Floro’s objective here, with a draw being acceptable.
That could give Canada a minimum of four points heading into the showdown with Costa Rica at the National Soccer Stadium in Toronto. There are no illusions here; Canada is not yet ready to beat the Ticos in a meaningful competition. Sure, anything can happen in a football match, but the odds are just not in Canada’s favour.
Placing second in Group B would likely see Canada face Guatemala or Trinidad & Tobago. Again, these are two tantalizingly beatable opponents for Canada, meaning a semifinal berth at this point would totally be within reason. The semis is where Canada would likely come up short against a Mexican team, if Mexico hasn’t found a way to self-destruct (as it is prone to do at times).
In this scenario, Canada would accomplish both the objectives cited earlier in this article. Progressing from the group should happen if Canada doesn’t implode, and from that point on the forecast is sunny with a high probability of thundershowers at the semifinal stage. Barring some major upsets in other matches involving Mexico, Costa Rica and the USA, stumbling in the semi would all but guarantee Canada a spot in next year’s Copa America.
Many of the Canadian scenarios laid out here are based on hope, but that in itself is a victory. Canada’s play in the past two years has allowed supporters to hope again, and for Benito Floro’s men it’s simply a matter of meeting the expectations that come with that hope. Should that hope be matched with results, perhaps the casual sports fan in Canada will once again come to know about the Gold Cup.
Photo courtesy of Joshua Pearson on Flickr.